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Apr 6, 2020

Carignan or Mazuelo, as it's known in its native Spain, is a complicated grape that gets a terrible rap. But the truth is, in the right hands and growing in the right conditions, this grape can fashion powerful wines that are pure hedonistic pleasure! 

  Photo: Vins-Rhone

Carignan has a long history. The grape is likely from Aragon in northeast Spain, but it spread around the Iberian Peninsula. It’s current Spanish name, Mazuelo comes from Mazuelo de Muñó, a town in Castilla y Leon in northwest Spain. Carignan may have originated in its namesake town of Cariñena, which is a Denomiacíon de Origen (DO) that grows mainly Garnacha Tinta. From these parts of Spain, Mazuelo spread to Catalunya in northeast Spain and then during the reign of the Crown of Aragon to the area it ruled. The grape:

  • Was introduced to Sardinia, the Italian island, sometime between 1323-1720
  • Moved to Algeria where it became a high yielding grape that was exported to France to bolster French blends in the color, acidity, and tannin department

The grape became commonplace in France after three incidents: phylloxera in the late 1800s, a frost destroyed the other “workhorse” grape,  Aramon in 1956 and 1963, and the independence of Algeria of 1962 brought French-Algerian winemakers into the Languedoc-Roussillon region who brought their trusty workhorse grape.

Pied Noir from Algeria

The over vigorous nature of the grape made it produce rustic, flavorless wines with rough tannin and high acid. It contributed majorly to the wine lake of the EU (low quality wine that was subsidized by the EU and then needed to be dealt with because there was no demand for it). Nearly half the Carignan in the Languedoc was grubbed up in the 1990s and today no one is planting it, as the only value in it is in grapes that are more than 50 years old.


When the vines are old, the soil is poor, and the climate is hot, Carignan makes wines that are full of dark cherry fruit, blueberries, violet and other floral notes. It’s full-bodied with (sometimes dusty-feeling) tannins and great acidity, and moderate alcohol. Winemakers have to be careful to ensure the fermentation gets enough oxygen or the wines can take on a burnt match/reductive note.


Where does the grape grow??

 Old World: 

France: 80% of the Carignan plantings are in the Languedoc-Roussillon – and make ordinary Vins de Pays (countryside) wine. Some appellations: Minervois, Corbières, Faugères, Fitou, Languedoc, and St-Chinian each have a certain amount of Carignan specified in their AOCs and use carbonic maceration to soften the tannin and produce fruitier notes in their Carignan. The best wines come from old vines, as is the case in all areas.


Really the two best places for Carignano/Mazuelo are Italy and Spain...

Italy: The grape here is called Carignano and 97% is planted on the island of Sardegna, where it has been called Bovale Grande or Bovale di Spagna. Because of the name difference,  it was only recently discovered that this grape is Carignan. The grape grows well in the hot, dry south-western corner of Sardinia. The best co-op is Santadi, which makes soft, supple, fruity, and rich wine from the Carignano del Sulcis DOC.  Rocco Rubine and Terre Brune are great wines from the co-op.

Spain: Mazuelo is found as a dwindling part of the Rioja blend
(although Marquis de Murrieta makes a varietal Mazuelo). The place the grape shines is Catalunya, especially Priorat. Here the vineyard recipe for this grape is perfect: 100+ year old vines, schist slopes (llicorella), poor soils, and a hot, dry climate. The wines it yields are silky, rich, powerful and luscious, especially when blended with Garnacha.


In the old world you can also find the grape in Croatia, Cyprus, Turkey, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia and Israel.


New World

In the New World, the grape is found in Uruguay, Australia (South Australia),  Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa.

In the US, in California, the grape is spelled Carignane and has historically been used as  a major component in jug and box wines, and was a popular grape home winemaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Like all Carignan, the best in California is found where there is old bush vines – places like Mendocino, Sonoma, Contra Costa County and other areas.


Chile has great promise for the wine as well – especially with the ancient, dry farmed Carignan in Maule Valley.


There seems to be hope for Carignan as younger producers have taken an interest in giving it the attention it needs to make good wine. The grape has great potential!


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