The Carignan Day conference and the Vinocamp I attended in Montpellier last week made my heart full of appreciation for wines of Languedoc-Roussillon and Carginan. I am fascinated of how they have managed to survive and resurrect themselves from the poor reputation. In recent decades, they have made a huge effort, more than any other French wine regions, to the improvement of wine quality and the development of a new identity.
It was in the Languedoc-Roussillon that phylloxera appeared for the first time in France back in 1863. It was also here that the Southern Wine Revolts of 1907 happened; up to 800,000 protesters, three days of anti-government riots and six deaths (including a 14-year-old boy). Stretching from the Rhône river to the Spanish border, the region is the world’s largest vineyard.
Languedoc-Roussillon has been living up to its bad reputation of low-quality and overproduction wines. One of the winemakers at the conference was saying “There were too much wine that we can have a pool filled with it”. From 1958 to 2010, many wine growers decided to abandon and accepted the buyout to remove their vineyards. As a result, more than 200,000 hectares of vines were ripped out.
Speaking of “low quality” or “bulk wine” in the Languedoc-Roussillon, it is Carignan that took the blame for it. Some people consider as an enemy of the region. Carignan is a vigorous red wine grape. It can produce exceptionally high yields. It was widely planted to replace the extremely vigorous Aramon (the region dominant vine) that suffered the devastating frost of 1956. Carignan ripens late so it needs a warm Mediterranean climate. When an undistinguished personality grape like Carignan is allowed to yield so high, the results are unforgettably poor. At the end of 20th century, Carignan was ripped out and replaced with what we consider “better vines” like Syrah and Merlot. Today, there is only 25 000 hectares of it left.
Despite the vine-pull scheme, there are still Carignan vines remaining that are more than 100 years of age. Many winemakers and growers in Languedoc-Roussillon have seen Carignan as a living heritage. However, Carignan has suffered the prejudice of being “cheap junk wine”. Given the circumstances of what the Languedoc-Roussillon and Carignan have been through, the only thing you should do is give them a try.
Today, there are many Carignan-loving winemakers who make wines from 100% Carignan. I have tasted Carignan from 135 years old vines and it is incredibly fantastic. The Carignan can potentially make rich, flavourful and balanced wines that will blow your mind. The old vines with low yields tend to deliver more character and less harshness.
I have much sympathy for Carignan and the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. They are misunderstood. We should leave the bad reputation behind. The winemakers are working very hard to make high quality wines to shape their new identity. And I think Carignan could be a key to that success.