Wine Talk: Learn to love Carignan

Traditionally a variety that has been most appreciated in blends, Carignan has been the backbone of the Israeli wine industry for nearly 130 years.

By
October 10, 2013 12:10
Carignan, the first international variety planted in Israel.

Carignan, the first international variety planted in Israel.. (photo credit: courtesy)

Learn 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.”

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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.

In the better Carignan regions of Languedoc, such as Corbieres, Fitou, Faugeres, it is often blended with Syrah, Grenache or Mourvedre.

The 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.

When 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.

Among 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 Malbec.

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.

This 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.

Even then, 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 absolutely necessary.

Why was Carignan so popular? Firstly, it was ideal for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

Though 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 an issue.

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.

More 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 Israel.

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 Rothschild.

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 Carignans.

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 variety.

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.

The fact 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!

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. adam@carmelwines.co.il


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