Let the Wine Decide: Reviving old varietals in Cairanne

June 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm

This week we travel west back down the slopes of La Montée de Ventabren to Saint Andéol and our oldest Grenache Noir vineyard. Here, protected by the wood that borders the plot, can be found vines dating back to 1946.

The vineyard holds two secrets; an old grotto hidden in the adjoining wood where long ago villagers fashioned charcoal in a ‘charbonnière; ‘and secondly a new planting of Carignan Noir! We at Boutinot Rhône are determined to retain this old southern French variety in the vineyards of Cairanne. Carignan Noir has been misunderstood and unfairly maligned: when produced from low yields its grapes have the potential to produce wine of incredible structure and acidity, a perfect counterfoil to rich, heady Grenache Noir.

Old vine Grenache Noir at Saint Andéol, Cairanne

SAINT ANDEOL (Grenache Noir / Carignan Noir): Shaded by an old wood on a gradual south / south west facing slope is  Saint Andéol, planted with our oldest Grenache Noir. Some vines were planted as long ago as 1946, some 10 years later in 1956 and the most recent in 1963. Old vines indeed!

Old bush vine Grenache Noir at Boutinot Rhône's Saint Andéol, Cairanne

Old vine Grenache Noir on ‘saffre’

In comparison to the agrilo-calcaire of La Pauline and Les Six Terrases further up the hill, the soil here is sandier and the limestone pebbles give way to  ‘saffre’ (compressed sandy limestone). This is well draining soil, into which roots can extend deep into the ground.

Vines are gloriously low yielding and, due to the shelter of the trees, slower ripening. Generally they are the last rows we pick, when the Grenache is lusciously ripe.

The importance of Grenache Noir (especially old vine Grenache) to our wines has been discussed in past posts but Saint Andéol is also interesting for another reason – our  new plantation of Carignan Noir.

BALANCING EFFECT OF CARIGNAN: Once seen as the ‘bane of the European wine industry’ Carignan Noir only just beginning to be re-evaluated by forward-thinking winemakers who ironically look back to the wines their fathers and grandfathers before them made.

Planted close to their Grenache Noir (and in the old days probably intermingled) winemakers like us see the value of Carignan Noir in its gift of backbone and freshness to the final assemblage.

Global warming or not, Grenache can achieve phenomenal ripeness in the warm Mediterranean sun, which almost needs to be tempered by the structure and acidity we can reap from low-yielding Carignan Noir.

Prejudice against such varieties as Carignan has even been enshrined in the official regulations for Cairanne, as sadly in many villages of the southern Rhône, which prohibit the planting of new Carignan plots.

Luckily at Saint Andéol we inherited a plot of Carignan vines (albeit in a sorry state and in need of starting again); so we have the necessary re-planting rites. Now replanted we look forward to their contribution to future releases of Boutinot ‘La Côte Sauvage’ Cairanne.

PLANTING A VINEYARD: Planting is a relatively rare activity in a vineyard, particularly as old vines are treasured for the sublime quality of their grapes! But on the 3rd April 2012, armed with our camera we climbed the hill to Saint Andéol to record the process.

Before planting, the site was assessed. Firstly simple practical considerations such as: ‘What are we legally allowed to plant?’; ‘How is it possible to make it easier for us to tend the vines?’; ‘Which direction should we align the vines, given the exposition to morning or afternoon sun, as well as vulnerability to wind in this windy region?’ As explained above, Carignan Noir could be planted in Saint Andéol as historically this variety had been planted there.

Soil analysis helps decide which is the best clone to select as well as the actual grape variety. Additionally we need to be mindful of the regulations which govern the maximal and minimal overall percentages permitted of each grape variety throughout the totality of our vineyard surface.

Once selected, each vine stock is ordered months in advance of the planting from the nursery: otherwise you may have to wait till the following spring! At planting the grape variety is delivered already grafted onto phylloxera- resistant American rootstock, as throughout most of the wine world.

PREPARING THE GROUND: Very old deep roots had to be removed by hand and the site was levelled and finely scraped to prepare the soil for the new vines’ delicate roots – much as you might when planting a new bed in your garden.

Laying out rows for planting Carignan Noir in Boutinot Rhône Saint Andéol vineyard, Cairanne

Rows are measured out along the contour of the slope and holes prepared for each vine, equidistant from each other along the marked out rows.

Marking out new Cairignan Noir vineyard. Boutinot Rhône, Cairanne

We like to follow the cycles of nature and plant on a ‘fruit’ day during a descending moon (as the ultimate aim of the vine is unsurprisingly to produce fruit; and a descending moon favours the roots’ bedding in). So looking to the lunar calendar, and possibly the weather on the day, the best day to plant is decided upon. Just before planting each root is cut down by 1cm to allow the nutrients and water in the soil to enter the roots easily – much as one does when putting a bunch of cut flowers into a vase.

Preparing young vines fro planting, Boutinot Rhône vineyard, Cairanne

Trimming the roots of new vines before planting to encourage roots to establish

Then the vine is placed directly in the soil, supported by a wire and watered well to allow the roots to establish.

Planting new Carignan Noir into 'saffre' at Boutinot Rhône, Cairanne

Newly planted Carignan Noir vine at Saint Andéol, Boutinot Rhône, Cairanne

Sheltered by a wood on north/north eastern corner of the vineyard, young vines are protected from strong winds. Then we let the plant grow by itself without any intervention.  In order to make it strong and healthy, the roots need a few weeks to develop.

Tiny Carignan Noir vines growing at Boutinot Rhône, Cairanne

After planting the 250 vines the team relaxed in the new picnic area within the woods. A few of the men could remember ‘charbonnières’ being used to make charcoal when they were children, similar to the remnants of one in the ‘secret grotto’  within our Saint Andéol woods and sneaked off to have a look.

A 'charbonnière' in a secret grotto at Saint Andéol, Boutinot Rhône

The newly planted vines won’t be harvested for another two years, but the tiny vines are growing well (see below) and we are confident our new planting of Carignan Noir will bear great fruit.

We have always included a small but vital component of Carignan Noir in Boutinot ‘La Côte Sauvage’ Cairanne and will continue to value the gifts of complexity and longevity this old grape variety can bring.

New planting Carignan Noir, Cairanne, Boutinot Rhône vineyards

LEFT: Newly planted Carignan Noir (April 2012). RIGHT: Vine growing well months later (June 2012)