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The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals

Carignan is like a gifted but errant child. Left to its own devices, it turns into Macaulay Culkin. Show it tough love in the vineyard, though, and the sky's the limit. I've often thought that if I had a daughter, she'd be too much like me when I was young (until I enrolled in a strict high school run by Basilian priests), so I would name her Carignan.

You don't see the word on wine labels much. Mainly it's because carignan is typically blended with other varieties in the grape's strongholds of southern France and northern Spain, where the cuvées are usually named for places rather than grapes. But it's worth learning a bit of geography to get to know a red that's increasingly in vogue with smart shoppers keen on scoring a transcendent wine experience at a reasonable price.

Rich in colour, acid and astringent tannins, carignan may disappoint drinkers looking for the mellow smoothness of, say, California merlot or Australian shiraz. But it can thrill when it's good and when you put your mind – and the right food – to it. Usually full-bodied, it tends to suggest dark berries, Mediterranean herbs and even, oddly, hints of citrus (flavours typically associated with white wines). It sings in the company of earthy red meats, particularly lamb, whether roasted, grilled or braised on the stovetop. Like a mother's call to the dinner table, carignan invites you to sit down and eat.

An ancient vine, the variety likely originated in Spain's northeastern Aragon region, where it more commonly goes by the name mazuelo. Further west, in Rioja, it also figures in many of Spain's most famous reds, where it's typically a minority component next to mellower tempranillo and supple garnacha (or grenache), adding colour and structure.

Because of its firm acid and tannin spine, carignan also provides welcome backbone to plummy syrah as well as grenache and mourvèdre in France's vast Languedoc-Roussillon region, site of the world's largest carignan plantations. It's there, notably in the appellations of Corbières, Saint-Chinian, Minervois and Fitou, that the grape rises to perhaps its greatest heights as a significant player in red blends.

As for that errant quality, carignan demands aggressive pruning and other vineyard care to keep fruit yields low. This helps the late-ripening vine focus energy on fewer berries, accelerating sugar production and reducing acidity before the cool autumn closes the door on the growing season. There's another, less labour-intensive way to win that race, though, by relying on old vines of 40-plus years, which naturally tend to yield fewer and more concentrated flavour-balanced berries.

Because of that ripening challenge, many French winemakers simply gave up on carignan during the past two decades, abandoning something historically seen mainly as a workhorse variety for high-acid jug wine served by the carafe in bistros. Plantings have been in significant decline. But for consumers, this may be good news, because many quality-focused producers who continued to champion carignan have increasingly focused their efforts on precious older vines.

Names to seek out include Domaine Sainte Croix, Domaine d'Aupilhac, Domaine Jones, Château d'Anglès and Domaine Bertrand Bergé.

You could say that carignan is finally getting the respect – and tough love – it deserves.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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