For decades, the vineyards of Boutenac have provided a safe haven for Carignan, a grape variety that has been much-maligned. Offering a sustainable future for this viticultural heritage is of paramount importance to the appellation.

 

With hindsight, it is fair to say that it took a great deal of nerve to imagine a Carignan-based appellation at the end of the 20th century. At the time, the wind was definitely blowing in the opposite direction. Across Languedoc, appellation rules were setting maximum thresholds for Carignan’s share of the varietal range, and rolling out the red carpet for the Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre threesome. To champion Carignan was outdated, or even provocative. But the leading lights in Corbières-Boutenac proved to be undaunted, and determined, and they confidently made the share of Carignan a mandatory 30 to 50% of the varietal range for farms seeking to produce wines under an appellation ultimately recognised in 2005.

 

Devastation

Originally from Cariñena, in the province of Aragon, this Spanish grape variety arrived in Aude at around the time of the French Revolution in 1789. It subsequently became a staple of the Languedoc wine growing scene due to its higher crop levels, alcohol content and deeper colour than the native grape varieties. It would reach its heyday in 1988 when it covered 167,000 hectares under vine, making it the most widely-grown grape variety in France.

And then, overnight, things changed dramatically. Held responsible for the poor quality of wines from the South of France, and therefore of the wine crisis, it became the primary target of the extensive vine-pull scheme funded by Europe. Over 25 years, some 140,000 ha of Carignan were wiped off the map, replaced by vines deemed capable of improving quality. By 2015, its vineyard area had shrunk to 28,700 ha in Languedoc-Roussillon, out of a total 32,000 ha in France.

But fourteen years after the appellation was recognised, the situation has undergone a sea-change. Early die-back affecting Syrah, technical advances and global warming have promoted Carignan’s renewed popularity. Boutenac can therefore pride itself on having remained a bastion of resistance for the varietal, whose ability to adapt to drought, exude black fruit, garrigue and spice aromas, its tannin backbone and acidity are now frequently lauded. Specialist wine writers agree that the strong, hallmark character displayed by the appellation’s wines can be ascribed to Carignan.

 

A 30-year hiatus

Some issues still need to be solved however, particularly how to safeguard a remarkable heritage of old vines, some of them well over 100 years old. Attempts to mix them with young plants to replace missing vines have often failed. “The roots of the old vines have colonised the soils to such an extent that they suffocate the young plants”, explain Jean-Marc Reulet and Louis Fabre. Consequently, when the number of missing vines hits a certain threshold, growers have no choice but to replace the older vines, though they do so with a heavy heart. So far, this has had no impact on the production of Corbières-Boutenac. In 2017, Carignan still represented 40% of declared vineyard area within the appellation, with 86 hectares of vines aged for the most part over 60 years old. The stock of bush-trained vines is considerable. 650 hectares of Carignan were listed in 2004 within the burgeoning appellation area – there are still 433 ha and so the potential has yet to be fully capitalised on. But renewal of vine stock may become an issue. “There were virtually no plantings between 1975 and 2005”, admits Jean-Marc Reulet, owner of Château Hauterive-le-Haut. “Many growers succumbed to the temptation of modernism and grants, and uprooted Carignan and Cinsault to plant Syrah or Mourvèdre”, explains Etienne Besancenot. “When I arrived at Château de Caraguilhes in 2008, I had to quickly plant Carignan to meet production specifications for the appellation”.

 

New impetus

Excluding young Carignan vines from entitlement to the appellation for nine years after planting has also had an impact”, adds Louis Fabre. “It has little effect on a large farm, but it penalises the small estates”. Is this measure justified? It is widely accepted that it takes Carignan around ten years to establish itself properly. “Young vines should not be underestimated”, claims Etienne Besancenot, however. “Their grapes are more fragile and you have to be more mindful of ripening levels, but they can rapidly produce some great results, provided they have been planted in the right places”. Louis Fabre concurs: “The varietal’s natural productivity, particularly over the first few years, has to be reined in by pruning short and thinning clusters where necessary. Otherwise it struggles to ripen and is unforgiving. But if yields are restricted to 20 hl/ha, you can produce some magnificent juice when the vines reach their fifth year”.

Our member growers plant a dozen or so hectares a year”, says Benoît Fillaquier, director of the Terre d’Expression co-operative winery in Fabrezan. “Carignan is Boutenac’s most typical grape variety and the one most suited to drought conditions. Its heritage must be safeguarded. The identity of Boutenac depends on it”. For a long time, Carignan was excluded from planting subsidies, but for the past few years it has been eligible again in Languedoc-Roussillon. This has provided new impetus for plantings, with 40 ha planted in 2008, 117 ha in 2012 and 220 ha in 2017.

Nurseries have so far managed to meet demand. But will the sixteen hectares of Carignan graft nurseries in France, one third of which is controlled by the Aude chamber of agriculture, be able to cope should there be another spectacular surge in plantings?

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