At a tasting of small Chilean vineyards put on by Wines of Chile at New York City’s Puro Chile gourmet and wine store, a table in the corner was displaying a handful of bottles of Old Vine Carignan. I was immediately curious. Carignan was brought to Chile from Argentina after a large earthquake in Chillán in 1939 to blend with Pais grapes, which were heavily impacted, but it hasn’t been heard of much since. Suddenly it is being rediscovered in the Maule Valley.
Carignan was the single most planted grape in France until Merlot came along in the late 20th century. It is believed to be native Cariñena in Aragon, Spain (where it was displaced by garnacha). Old-vine Carignan grapes, ripened on infertile soils in a warm summer, produce the best wine by a long shot. With 70 to 80 year old vines Carignan is not overly acidic with pleasant berry and black cherry notes. Tannins and acidity are naturally high, so the fruity notes are needed so they are not overpowering. The vines ripen late so they can be successfully grown only in relatively warm climates. The biggest hazard is the susceptibility to powdery mildew and downy mildew, which means it needs extensive spraying unless it is planted in the very driest of climates. Which brings us to Carignan vines in Chile.
Carignan in Chile
Utilizing 60-75 year old vines from the Maule Valley, Carignan as a single varietal is beginning to show enormous potential. The Maule’s dry soil is ideal for the grape, probably better conditions than in Spain or France. It grafts well with País vines and can fully share the depth of País roots and adopt the body of the old trunks. There are País vines in Chile that are more than 300 years old, so this is a particularly big plus. The Carignan grapes are said to take on the age of the older País vines seamlessly.
Chilean winemakers have formed a 12-meber cooperative called VIGNO (Vignadores de Carignane), to promote Carignan in the country. Under the VIGNO label they are required to be produced from vines at least 30 years of age and at least 65% Carignan grapes. The wines must also be aged for two years, and blends must be entirely made with old, dry-farmed vines.
Five Recommended Chilean Carignan Wines
1.) Louis-Antoine Luyt Empedrado 2010 (Trequiemu)
2.) Undurraga VIGNO 2010 (Maule)
3.) Santa Ema Amplus Carignan 2009 (Cachapoal)
4.) Oveja Negra Single Vineyard Carignan 2009 (Maule)
5.) Montes Outer Limits CGM 2011 (Apalta)
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.