RECOMMENDED: Paul Mas Estate, 2009 Carignan Vieilles Vignes, Single Vineyard Collection, Pays d’Herault, Languedoc. 13.5% alcohol. Available for as little as $8.95 online.

This was the result of a mistake on the part of the wine merchant (www.empirewine.com). We had ordered a 2009 white varietal, Picpoul, also a Paul Mas Estate selection, but we received the red Carignan instead. Rather than hassle with returns and such, we simply cracked it open, and WOW, what a lovely surprise.

Color: Clear dark garnet. It’s so beefy we were surprised there’s no sediment.
Bouquet: Barbecue sauce, dust, smoke, plum sauce, white pepper, gunpowder.
Mouth: Very dry, yet full-bodied, fruity, smooth, and balanced. Round and rich on the palate. Licorice, oak, and cedar; lots of dark fruits, cinnamon, and cocoa—plenty of depth and complexity in this one!
Finish: Long and luscious, with just an edge of spiciness. The velvety tannins are evident but not heavy-handed.

Never heard of Carignan? Until around 1990, it was the most widely grown grape in France. The workhorse grape of France and Spain, its ancestral home (where it is called Cariñena), Carignan is traditionally used in blends and is the primary, unsung ingredient in French wines that are labeled simply “Red table wine” or “Vin de Table.” That is why most people have heard of Carignan only in passing, or not at all.

The growers’ love of Carignan was largely due its huge yields (up to 11 tons/acre). French growers were planting the vines in droves, and the quality of much of the output had decreased to the point when in 1988 the French wine gendarmes decided to do something about the “wine lake” they had on their hands. The European Union set up a vine-pull program that awarded cash subsidies to vineyard owners who yanked out their Carignon vines. As a result, the acres planted in Carignon were slashed by two-thirds. The remaining vines were the old and proven ones, which means that some excellent Carignan varietal wines can be obtained today.

That said, like Pinot Noir, the Carignon grape can be fickle to work with. It is naturally high in tannins and acid, requiring significant skill and proper aging to produce an elegant wine from it. For this reason, many of the Expert Wine Snobs are skeptical at best, and eschew the varietal at worst. But it is outgrowing its old questionable reputation, and is emerging again as a sought-after blend ingredient to be proud of.

And if you can find a varietal wine of the quality of this Paul Mas 2009, especially at this price, our advice is to grab it and enjoy the heck out of it. It’s refreshingly different from the usual big reds such as Cab and Tempranillo, and packs a whallop of an entirely different kind. Reportedly California’s Ridge Vineyards has also been making some lovely wines from old (1880s) Carignan vines, so that one’s on our wish list as well.

LABEL NOTES: Paul Mas Estate Single Vineyard Collection wines come from Jean-Claude Mas’ vineyards in the Languedoc region in the South of France. Located on the hillsides of the Herault overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, our Savignac vineyard is the ideal location to grow Carignan grapes. These old Carignan vines (over 50 years) have reached a perfect natural balance, making wine of great concentration, full-bodied and generous, and with smooth tannins from gentle oak aging (50% of the wine is aged 6 months in oak barrels). We feel this wine is a true representative of our winemaking roots.

WINERY NOTES: Located on the hillsides of the Herault overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the Savignac vineyard is the ideal growing location for Carignan grapes. These mature vines, some over 50 years old, have reached a perfect natural balance. … On the nose, spices and blackberry give way to aromas of cherry jam and cocoa over toasted oak notes. … A full-bodied, rich and mellow wine, with delicious velvety tannins and complex flavors. … Jean-Claude Mas has blazed the trail for premium winemaking in the Languedoc region of the South of France. Since taking the helm of the centuries-old Domaines Paul Mas in 2000, his driving mission has been to use only premium quality grapes to craft superior wines with a modern, New World flair. Above all else, this innovative, fourth-generation vintner strives to make wines with authenticity and refinement, the end result of which is a family of magnificently charming wines that burst with personality and express their unique terroir. The Paul Mas varietal range of single vineyard wines is made with the highest quality grapes cultivated on vineyards in the Domaines de Nicole and Chateau du Conas estates.

NOTE: Best served somewhat cold initially.

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