One of the wine grape varieties which did not originate in France, the Carignan vine is from Spain, Italy and possibly Algeria. It was once grown so intensely that it produced a wine ‘lake’ in France, but it is now much less well-known compared to other grapes and wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Most people would be hard-put to describe exactly what the Carignan is, but as more South African drinkers start to look for alternatives to the common reds or whites, the Carignan is becoming more popular, and this has lead to a deep interest in growing and producing Carignan among South Africa’s wine estates.
It is rare for Carignan to be used as a single varietal wine, and instead it is more likely to be used as a mixer for other wines, such as Grenache, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. The vine itself has also been crossed to produce the very interesting Ruby Cabernet, but the Carignan is not often drunk by itself, often remaining just a background note to more exuberant wines. This has lead to it being ignored by South African growers, and there is only a small percentage of Carignan vines being grown in the regions and districts of the country.
One of the reasons for this lack of interest amongst growers is the problems that Carignan has in producing healthy grapes. Carignan does however have a large yield for its size, but the fruits are very vulnerable to rot and mildew, as well as the ever-problematic grape worms. The vine itself also requires a great deal of warmth in the season in order to produce the grapes, which can reduce the amount of wards that can successfully grow the plant in order to produce the wine. This means that wine growers often prefer to choose more resistant, hardier red grape vines.
Another problem with the Carignan is the taste and nature of the grape. It is often very acidic, with a high level of tannins which give the taste of the wine too much astringency. This can put off some wine tasters, but others actually choose to drink Carignan due to these tastes. In France, blenders often use carbonic maceration to reduce the toughness of the skins, and encourage faster maturity from the grapes. Those blenders who attempt to work with Carignan in South Africa tend to be very knowledgeable and experienced, and are more likely to be looking for a challenge.
One of the regions where Carignan has successfully been grown is in the Paarl area, and particularly by the team working at Fairview. Their version of the drink the Black Road Carignan, which has been warmly received and given high praise by wine drinkers in South Africa. Their Pegleg Carignan is also very popular among wine drinkers, and the blenders have attempted to soften the harshness of the fruit by mixing a variety of fruits, and using the earthiness of the area around Paarl to give the wine a less astringent and more amiable taste, suitable for drinkers who are ready to move on from the comfortable Cabernet Sauvignon.