In 2002, Daniel Illsley exchanged a life in theatre for a career in wine. He founded the small chain of wine shops Theatre of Wine, and set up an import business to supply restaurants. He has been wine director of acclaimed restaurant Maison François in London’s St James’s since it opened in 2020, winning Wine List of the Year at the National Restaurant Awards in 2023. Daniel is currently writing about his adventures in wine.
There was never a man so notoriously abused,’ protests Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and it seems to me that Cariñena, aka Carignan, could argue the same case. It’s still all too easy to discern the wild reek of a carbonic Carignan in a Languedoc blend, but fortunes are changing for the grape once seen as the ugly sister to Grenache and Syrah. And not before time. At its best it has a profile of dark berries, forest balsam, smoke and spice, with vibrant acidity and a smudge of sooty tannins.
Cariñena is its true name, a nod to its supposed origins in Aragón, but it appears under many synonyms, a sign of its proliferation in the world of wine. Its natural home is in hot climates, so it grows in abundance along the Mediterranean coast from Catalonia to the Rhône. Spanish colonists took it to Sardinia, and its notoriety for high yields and resistance to drought spread from north Africa to the Levant, and even central California; anywhere cheap jug wine was needed.
I, too, loathed Carignan. Such was its lowly reputation that it was subjected to the vine pull purges of the 1980s and ’90s as wine lakes turned to oceans, and wine was being distilled for industrial alcohol. Many ancient vines were regrettably lost.
It would be wine from such old vines, crouched low in arid, decomposed schist or granite, that would convince me of its virtues, and I came to realise that it was not the vine, but the treatment it had been subjected to that was the source of Carignan’s miserable reputation.
Head to the hills
To taste it at its best one must head to the hills; to the Agly valley of Roussillon or, better still, the canyons of Priorat, where vines of venerable age cling to the steep slopes of fractured llicorella slate. Tasting a good vintage of mature Cariñena is the only epiphany any doubter needs. The sweep of flavours are as good, rich, mature and complex as any fine wine, any Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bandol, to which it most closely bears a resemblance. Duck, especially a confit leg with garlicky lentils, would make a perfect dinner match. Younger, less grand wines can be enjoyed with a robust saucisson and a tortilla.
Curious tasters should seek out the rare Cariñena white and gris mutations. Like the red, they confer much-needed acidity, and evoke with ease aromas of hillside scrub and the intense mineral cut of the scree.
Discover Carignan: Daniel’s four to try
Let’s start in France. From the estate’s oldest vines, Domaine de Soulanes, Vieilles Vignes Blanc, Côtes Catalanes, Roussillon 2021 (£25-£27 Cambridge Wine Merchants, Theatre of Wine) is a sharply etched blend of Carignan Gris and Grenache Gris with layers of vermouth herbs, lemon rind, anise, dried grasses and a long stony finish. No hurry to drink this.
Then moving to Priorat in Spain, three that stand out. Cims de Porrera’s Classic 2015 (£60.70 Theatre of Wine; in the US, AR Wine New York) is sourced from old vines – up to 100 years of age – and is powerful, compact and muscular. The winery releases its cuvées later than others in the region, and the mature Les Sentius, Joan Bta Domènech 2000 (£215 Theatre of Wine) shows the complexity that great, evolved Cariñena can display, with notes of menthol, sloes and thick green leaves, dried fruits, leather and cured meat.
Lastly, and still in Priorat, Clos Mogador’s Manyetes 2019 (£65.60 Christopher Keiller), an exhilarating vintage of a parcel of extremely old Cariñena from René Barbier. Intense, opulent and beautifully defined by the grape’s intrinsic acidity, pulling the flavours through to the long finish. An essence.