Carignan the Barbarian

The Trailer (1982)

For centuries, the gentle giant wandered carefree amongst the foothills and the mountains of Southern France. But, not so long ago, his strong character became too much for some to bear, and he found himself out of favour with the locals. Unloved and unwanted, he had to hide himself amongst his more charismatic neighbours. But Carignan didn’t care. He believed that, once he was fully mature, his qualities would be recognised and he would once again be welcome in his homeland. One day.

Carignan isn’t the easiest grape to love. For decades it has been maligned, ignored or dug up in favour of ‘better’ varieties. I have certainly encountered some examples over the years that have been unpleasantly pungent, flabby or just plain dirty. But many Languedoc winemakers are now taking a second look at it, and seeing what can be achieved with some extra care and attention. Whenever I used to think of Carignan, I used to imagine Mr Twit from Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Twits; grubby and hairy, sporting an ominous grin. With a bit of TLC however, can it be sculpted into something more like a ruggedly charismatic Conan?





It’s not just Carignan that has been pulled up in favour of other varieties in the Languedoc. Since the early 1980s, there has been a programme to replace traditional local varieties such as Alicante, Terret Noir and Piquepoul Noir with so-called ‘improving’ varieties from other regions: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The first three of these are traditionally grown in the southern Rhône Valley directly to the east of the Languedoc region, and Cinsault has long been cultivated in Provence, further east still.

It’s fair to say that not all grape varieties are created equal. Syrah, for example, is capable – in the right soils and the right hands – of creating some of the most wonderful wines imaginable. The same is probably not true of grapes such as Piquepoul Noir. Fortunately, the Languedoc is historically a region that blends grape varieties when making wine, so there is room for both the ancient and the modern. So in order to create great wines, it is no bad thing to have a bit of Syrah around to help bolster the overall quality of what is being produced. But it would be a shame to lose the unique qualities of the traditional varieties completely. You never know when you might need them.

Let Carignan off the leash and you’ll end up with huge crops, but poor quality juice. It may seem like a good thing to the winemaker to have more bottles of wine to sell to start with, but if the quality is no good, then it’s clearly a false economy. In France they call it ‘faire pisser le vigne’. But this was what the Languedoc was known for, before the changes of the 1970s and ‘80s; quantity, not quality. Some grapes can still perform reasonably well under these conditions, but Carignan isn’t one of them; especially when the vines are young. Perhaps this is where Carignan has got its reputation for poor quality.

On a recent trip to the Languedoc, however, a good number of winemakers were singing its praises. And after tasting a few pure Carignans, and, in particular, some Carignan-heavy blends, I couldn’t help but agree. With smaller crops, older vines, and certain winemaking practices (like carbonic maceration), some of them were very enjoyable indeed. The majority were still powerful, pungent, brambly bruisers, but not without balance and nuance of flavour.

Pierre Bories, winemaker at Ollieux Romanis in Corbières, is one of these Carignan evangelists. To him, “Carignan is a passion”. Bories posited that Carignan was just the lens through which the terroir could be perceived. This theory is more frequently put forward by Burgundian winemakers when talking about their beloved Pinot Noir. I remain unconvinced that Carignan’s broad brushstrokes will ever equal the subtle illustration that Pinot Noir can manage when it comes to reflecting precise definitions between different terroirs. But that doesn’t mean that this burly variety can’t faithfully express the more rugged landscape of its home country. In the right hands, this barbarian grape variety can actually be much friendlier than its reputation suggests.


Reds with a good dollop of Carignan in:


Château de Caraguilhes, ‘Classic’, 2010
A blend of 50% Carignan, 25% Syrah and 25% Grenache grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£8.06 from Waitrose Wine Direct

A classic, slightly rustic and farmyardy Corbières. Medium-bodied, with dark brambly fruit flavours and a hint of black pepper. Good acidity, medium tannins, very drinkable. 87 points, good value.

Terres Falmet, Carignan, 2009
100% Carignan grape from Saint Chinian, Languedoc, France
£8.50 available at Stone, Vine and Sun

Damsons, dried figs, violets and lilies. Medium-bodied, with soft chewy tannins and balanced acidity. An enjoyable fresh mouthful of wine. 88 points, good value.

Château Cesseras, ‘Cuvée Olric’, 2009
A blend of 60% Syrah, 40% Carignan grapes from Minervois, Languedoc, France
£9.75 available at Berry Brothers & Rudd

A fresh plum and bramble nose with a hint of smokiness and black pepper. No oak. Medium-bodied, with gentle ripe silky tannins. All elements harmonious and balanced. 90 points, very good value.

Clos Perdus, ‘Cuvée 71’, 2009
A blend of 50% Carignan, 35% Grenache and 15% Mourvèdre grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£12.99 available at Nothing But The Grape

Plum, dried fig and apple with a touch of licorice. Ripe tannins, bright, lively fruit. A touch rustic, but concentrated and very appetising. 89 points, good value.

Ollieux Romanis, ‘Cuvée Prestige’, 2008
A blend of 40% Carignan, 25% Grenache, 25% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£13.99 available at Les Caves de Pyrène

This is starting to develop a complex nose of blackberry and eucalyptus with hints of iodine and tobacco. Medium-bodied, with fresh acidity and ripe tannins. Well balanced with juicy fruit flavours if not hugely long on the finish. 90 points, fair value.



The trip referred to in this post was kindly organised and paid for by Westbury Communications.

Photo 1 source:

Photo 2 source:—Conan-the-Barbarian—1982-/Arnold-Schwarzenegger-as-Conan.-7fR.htm