Sunday, 31 October 2010

Pinot Noir of the South

Back in the spring the first International Grenache Symposium took place in the depths of the Southern Rhône. While obviously a trade event, it was good to see that anyone could make a case to be invited and, thanks to bloggers, quite a bit of video and written commentary on the bash is available.

Of Languedoc interest Ryon O’Connell posted a video (embedded below) of this round-table session led by Robert Joseph Grenache and Carignan in the Languedoc-Roussillon. In it Robert makes reference to Grenache being “the Pinot Noir of the South”. John Bojanowski of Clos du Gravillas, by way of describing how good Carignan can be in the region, makes a case for Carignan. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the term “Pinot Noir of the South”, but I’m curious as to what the simile really means to those who use it.

Pinot Noir’s home is Burgundy in the centre of France and here it has five interesting and probably relevant characteristics: -

1. Been around for centuries
2. Is used as a 100% varietal in almost all wines, and is especially king of the fabled Côte d’Or
3. Is challenging to grow, is challenging to make good interesting wine from, and has limited success outside of its homeland
4. The wine is reasonably recognisable as being Pinot Noir (at least when young)
5. It has the ability to take on endless different subtleties depending on where it grows – even down to vineyard level.

For a bit of fun I’ll score Grenache and Carignan against these characteristics and tally the results.

Both Grenache and Carignan have been in the midi for at least a couple of hundred years. Not as long as Pinot Noir in Burgundy, but then the midi has needed to change grape plantings to meet market demands. Both score 3 (out of 5).

Languedoc wines are generally blends. The exceptions are basic quaffing varietals and, curiously, some very top end wines. Carignan makes a few interesting 100% examples, Grenache even fewer (except perhaps in the Roussillon). Carignan 3 Grenache 2.

Old vine Carignan naturally restricts the yield of this phenomenal cropper. John Bojanowski points out in the video that the trick is harvest it late so the tannins fully ripen – it still retains good acidity and the sugars don’t go beyond 13.5%. It does have problems with odium and late harvests increase risk for growers. Very little Carignan exists beyond the Languedoc these days. Conversely Grenache is grown all over the planet so is presumably as easy going as vines get. The challenges are its narrow picking window of desirable ripeness and tendency to oxidise.
Carignan 4 Grenache 2 – but some growers will no doubt score this one differently.

Carignan wines from the region invariably posses varying degrees of bramble fruits, black olives, coffee and dark chocolate. Grenache is more variable in style and I find it hard to recognise – pepper is one indicator, forest floor, animal, sometimes rustic, sometimes sweet red fruits. My score Carignan 3 Grenache 2.

The last characteristic is about reflecting the Languedoc terroir and is presumably the main reason why Syrah is not a candidate, plus Syrah already has a happy home in the Northern Rhône. The more chameleon Grenache wins out here. Carignan 2 Grenache 4.

For what it’s worth the totals are Carignan 15 and Grenache 13. My candidate for Pinot Noir of the South is Cinsault, not as the workhorse of rose but for serious examples of red. Trouble is, these are as rare as hens teeth.


  1. Good read Graham, thanks. I was thinking about my choice and Mourvedre may be it, another 'fickle', difficult to grow variety I am told. I do love its flavours though. Cinsault I hadn't even considered as it is so rare, but I agree it is criminally neglected as it offers some ephemeral flavours in a Pinot style.

  2. What I've always understood about Grenache being the Pinot of the South is that it is perfumed, sweet and not tannic. I agree with you about Cinsault. The only place where you can taste it in blends is Lebanon and even there it's in decline.