to love Carignan” were the words of an English wine journalist who
visited Israel a number of times and claimed to know what was good for
the Israeli wine industry.
His parting advice was “Learn to love
Carignan. Every country has a grape it is known for as its ‘signature’
variety. Why not make some old vine Carignan? It’s your cheapest
variety, it’s not unknown, and such a wine could be unique, interesting
and (hopefully) more sensibly priced.”
Carignan hails from the
town of Carinena in Spain. It is known as Carignane in California,
Carignano in Italy and Carinena or Mazuelo in Spain. It is most
prominent in Languedoc-Roussillon, the Catalan regions of Spain,
Sardinia, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is fairly well
distributed in Cyprus, less so in Turkey and is barely seen in Greece.
However, it is more respected in Lebanon.
Traditionally, it is a
variety that has always been most appreciated in blends. Mazuelo is
usually a component in the Rioja blend.
In Priorat it is often blended with Grenache.
the better Carignan regions of Languedoc, such as Corbieres, Fitou,
Faugeres, it is often blended with Syrah, Grenache or Mourvedre.
legendary Paul Draper from Ridge Winery in California produces a rare
old vine Carignan and also uses it in one of his Zinfandel blends. It is
also an integral part of the famous Lebanese wine, Chateau Musar, where
it is blended with Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Carignan has also been the backbone of the Israeli wine industry for nearly 130 years, being ever present since the 1880s.
the first tentative steps to viticulture were taken in 1882 by a small
number of farmers in the Rishon Lezion area, they planted some local
Arab varieties but also a grape they called Corignan. They received
their cuttings from the Mikve Israel Agricultural School.
the other varieties planted were Alicante (a synonym of Grenache),
Espart (a.k.a. Mourvedre) and Bordolo (a.k.a. Cinsault), so there was a
distinct bias to vines from the South of France. The reasons for this
were not only that Mikve Israel was founded and funded by the French but
also they obviously thought the climate in Palestine was similar to
that of the South of France.
So the presence of Carignan in
Israel preceded even the involvement of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the
founder of the modern Israel wine industry. However, when the baron came
on his first visit to Israel in 1887, he insisted on concentrating more
on Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and
This was the beginning of a debate that is still going
on today: What are better for Israel, Bordeaux or Mediterranean
varieties? Back then, in the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th
century, the Mediterranean varieties won the argument. The growers
complained about the low yields of the Bordeaux varieties. Furthermore,
the early wineries discovered that the market was not yet ready for a
more expensive, higher quality “Palestine wine.” So when the vines in
Israel became affected by phylloxera, they all had to be grubbed up and
the vineyards replanted. By that time, the growers knew what the market
wanted – basic sacramental wines and inexpensive bulk wine. Carignan and
Alicante were selected instead, and these two varieties were
systematically planted throughout Israel.
By the 1940s, Carignan had a 20 percent share of the wine grapes planted in Israel.
grew to 28% in the 1950s and to 35% in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the
harvest of Carignan amounted to nearly 25,000 tons, and at one stage
even reached 55% of all the grapes planted in Israel.
the Carignan vine was considered to be most at home in the area around
the town of Zichron Ya’acov. More than half of the country’s Carignan
vineyards were planted in the valleys on either side of the southern
part of Mount Carmel. All the Carignan vineyards were planted in the
goblet, bush-vine style that was in vogue at the time. Harvesting was by
hand; and with the older vineyards, drip-feed irrigation was not always
Why was Carignan so popular? Firstly, it was ideal for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.
susceptible to powdery mildew, it proved easy to ripen and produced
consistent results even during the hottest, most humid vintage. It
was versatile and could be used to make grape juice, sweet sacra -
mental wines or dry red table wines, and growers could get very high
yields, up to four tons per dunam (quarter acre). What was important was
volume production and suitability to the climate. Quality was not then
Over the years, two attempts were made to improve the
simple Carignan grape. The Ruby Cabernet variety was developed in
California in 1949. This was a cross between Carignan and Cabernet
Sauvignon. Today, it is only sparsely grown in Israel.
prevalent is the Argaman variety, which was developed in Israel in the
early 1990s. It is a cross between Carignan and
Souzao. The most successful varietal Argaman to date is a single
vineyard wine produced by Segal Wines. However, neither Ruby Cabernet
nor Argaman was successful in replacing Carignan as the volume grape of
Since then, Israel has gone through a well-documented
quality revolution. Wineries now plant noble varieties in cooler,
higher-altitude vineyards, with the express objective of making quality
wines. As a result of this change, it is the Bordeaux varieties that
have returned, fulfilling the original vision of Baron Edmond de
Today, the finest wine from most Israeli wineries is
either a Bordeaux-style blend or a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. These
are the wines receiving the highest scores and bringing Israel a new
name for quality.
Yet the marketing people and some winemakers
still believe that a return to Mediterranean varieties is inevitable.
Shiraz/Syrah has been heavily planted in the last 10 years and is
thought by many to be ideal for Israel, and there are plantings of new
clones of Grenache and Mourvedre, etc.
In the 1990s, there was a
revival in Carignan, led by regions such as Priorat and Fitou. The use
of old vines and reduction in yields were seen as the keys to getting
the maximum from the variety. Also in Israel, winemakers began to look
at their productive Carignan vineyards differently. Individual plots
in old vine vineyards were identified, and yields were drastically
reduced. The stage was set to produce some good, quality, old-vine
Margalit Winery made a one-off Carignan in 2001,
and since then Carmel has been the leading the way producing its
Appellation Carignan Old Vines from Zichron Ya’acov vineyards since the
2004 vintage. Since then, Carignans have been made by wineries such as
Barkan, Binyamina and Recanati. Of the smaller wineries, Vitkin and
Somek are Carignan specialists. The English wine journalist quoted
earlier would be satisfied to see the revival of Israel’s oldest
Carignan was the first international variety planted in
Israel, and it has been a permanent fixture since the earliest vineyards
of Rishon Lezion in 1882 and Zichron Ya’acov in 1883.
that vineyards once used for sacramental wine are now producing
quality varietal Carignans is emblematic of the changes in priorities in
the Israel wine industry as a whole. Certainly, the wine critic,
sommelier or retailer from abroad is more interested in tasting wines
that are edgier, more exotic or unusual. The world is awash with
Cabernets and Merlots. The wine professional may turn up his nose at the
opportunity to taste yet another Cabernet or Merlot. However, an Old
Vine Carignan from Israel – that could be really interesting!
Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in
Israeli and international publications. email@example.com