Old-vine Carignan in Chile – deep-rooted wisdom in youthful grapes

Old grape vines, like our elders, have collected many stories to tell over the long years and seasons. With an extensive and interesting history in Chile, Carignan is no exception.

The Carignan grape arrived to Chile after the massive earthquake of Chillán in 1939, when producers of País grapes were impacted by the disaster. Carignan vines were brought to Chile from Argentina, where the grape was previously acquired from France.

Upon arriving to Chile, Carignan vines were planted in the dry Maule Valley, and there they have grown exceptionally well. País vines are also very successful in Maule, and País has an important role in the story of Carignan in Chile.

Carignan only existed in the Maule Valley, and it went unnoticed for many years without significant attention from the wine community. In the last decade, however, Carignan recently has been seducing wine producers and enologists.

Carignan is unique because of its sole appellation in Chile – the dry interior of Maule. Also, this grape variety sprouts later in the season than other grapes – three years are necessary to produce fruit, and two years additional are needed to have finished wine. As the popular saying goes: “the older the vine, the better the wine.”

Vintners found that Carignan grafts well onto País vines, since País similarly thrives in dry conditions, and is also head-pruned and with an earthy flavor. Better still, a Carignan grape can fully share the depth of País roots, adopting the body of the old trunks, and delivering the perfect roundness that age confers. Some País grapevines in Chile are more than 300 years old!

Carignan so thoroughly blended with País in Maule vineyards over time that it was difficult to distinguish them until the grape’s recent resurrection.

Chilean winemakers have now formed a cooperative known as VIGNO (Vignadores de Carignane), to promote Chile’s quality Carignan wines. With more than 12 member wineries, wines included under the VIGNO label are required to be produced from old vines – more than 30 years old – and with at least 65% Carignan grapes. In addition, the wines must be aged for two years, and blends must be entirely made with old, dry-farmed vines.

“I delight in tasting wines made from gnarled old plants to which no one paid attention for years until someone realized they might make decent wine,” writes wine blogger Aldo Yarrow, of vinography.com.

Wines of Chile recently brought Yarrow to New York City to taste and explore Chile’s finest Carignans.

“Carignan, especially approaching 70 or 80 years of vine-age, has a wonderful character, generally good acidity, and a very pleasurable berry and black-cherry flavor profile with occasional hints of cola nut,” enthuses Yarrow.

The tasting, which took place in June at Puro Chile in New York City, presented a small group of journalists, sommeliers and wine professionals with 26 Chilean Carignans.

“These wines were all generally very good, with a number approaching excellent,” Yarrow writes. “In general I’d say there was a tendency towards slightly heavy oak usage (which could easily be avoided) heavy extract (which could certainly be adjusted) and slightly heavy ripeness (which may not be so easily avoided as the climate may simply drive towards higher octane wines). I’m happy to say that most wines are easy to recommend, especially as some are excellent bargains as well.”

Some of Yarrow’s highest-rated Carignans, all from Maule Valley and with scores between 8.5 and 9, are summarized below; for a full list of tasted wines, visit www.vinography.com:

2008 De Martino “La Aguada Old Bush Vines” – 9/10

“…smells of tart black cherry and mulberry fruit with hints of green briary smells … a very nice balanced quality with earthy, tangy flavors of mulberry, cassis, and wet earth … Thick but supple tannins emerge as the wine finishes with green herbs and wet earth. Very pretty.”

2009 Santa Carolina “Dry Farming” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of rich mulberry and cassis with hints of wood … a creamy, silky texture with a nice weight on the palate. Rich flavors of cola, black cherry and mulberry mix with an earthy, black tea note. Lightly tacky tannins hang at the edges of the mouth. Softer acidity.”

2009 Undurraga “T.H.” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of cherry, cassis, and hints of cola … exceedingly smooth and balanced, with light, leathery tannins, and a core of black cherry and mulberry fruit. Nice tangy acidity combines with earthy and herbal undertones that linger in the finish. Very pretty wine.”

2009 Gilmore “VIGNO” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of rich mulberry and cassis flavors with hints of mintyness … mulberry and cassis flavors mix with black cherry and that minty quality persists through the finish. Unique and distinctive.”

2009 Oveja Negra – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of cassis and mulberry … flavors of cola and mulberry mix with nice earthy undertones. Good acidity, and nice texture.”

2008 Valdivieso “Eclat” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of softer aromas of black cherry and earth … has a nice texture and good balance with green herbal flavors mixed into dried cherry and mulberry flavors. The flavors here are somewhat subdued. Good acidity and tacky tannins. Very easy drinking.”

2010 Garage Wine Company “VIGNO” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of grapey mulberry and huckleberry fruit … mulberry and huckleberry fruit have a nice purity and scents of cedar. Wonderful acidity makes the fruit quite bright and lively. Faint tannins. Concentrated but not overpowering.”

2010 Undurraga “VIGNO” – 8.5-9/10

“… smells of mulberry and black cherry fruit. Good acidity makes the fruit bright and juicy, with a sour cherry tanginess along with the core of mulberry and cassis. Faint tannins linger in the finish.”

By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Wines of Chile

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