Wine: A taste of two cultures
Published 17/04/2010 | 05:00
As you move along the Mediterranean coast of southern France towards Spain, things take on a different air; you start noticing changes in the food, the wine and even the people.
This is Languedoc-Roussillon, and whereas the former is proudly French, the more southerly Roussillon is Catalan country; French too, but with a Spanish accent.
In food terms, I think of it as a Toulouse sausage morphing into a fiery, spicy chorizo. The wine, too, can reflect the transition from one culture to another.
Overwhelmingly, the red grapes of southern France that you hear most about are Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Then there's Carignan, which originated across the Roussillon border in north-east Spain, where it is known as Carinena, as in both the grape and wine zone.
Carignan used to be the most widely planted variety in France because it will oblige with heaps of grapes and has attributes such as acidity and tannins that give wine important backbone. It has good colour, too.
So, it was a useful blending partner with other softer, fruitier varieties, and combined they filled vats to overflowing with cheap, though cheerless, wine.
What Carignan is not known for is elegance, particularly when overstretched. So, 30 years ago, when the EU tackled Europe's wine lake to put a focus on quality over quantity, the order went out from Brussels to rip up Carignan and replace it with aristocrats such as Syrah.
Carignan disappeared by the hectare, but it hasn't gone away. Good growers know that they can tease it to produce quality from old vines, on the right soil, on well-drained slopes far away from the high-yielding flatlands, with a tight rein kept on its yields.
Treat it right and it gives great concentration, with a wonderful toast and spice character to add to Grenache's fruit and Syrah's violet notes.
Enrich that with the herby character that the south of France vines seem to inhale from the garrigue-filled air and it makes for toothsome wines.
To a greater or lesser extent, Carignan turns up in wines from ACs such as Costières de Nimes, St Chinian, Cabardes, Faugeres, Corbières, Fitou, Minervois and Côtes du Roussillon, the closer to Spain the more of it is likely to be in the mix.
These are the sort of characterful, great-value wines that lap up dishes such as herby lamb, spicy meatballs and anything in a rich tomato or red pepper-based sauce.