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Carignan, the Languedoc and the end of wine as we once knew it...

I think this ends up being a little bit of a blog, so feel free to stop here unless you want to spend 20 minutes reading about my philosophy of wine and why I think wine in some respect is dying. I’m open to criticism if you disagree with my views, but I’m just expressing what I see happening to wine and the tradition of it. Perhaps “dying” is too emphatic, maybe transforming or evolving is more objective, but in my heart, I think the death of wine as I know it is becoming inevitable. Some may consider this an improvement, but the last bottle of Portuguese wine I tasted flew the EU appellation: "European Atlantic West Coast.” What the heck is that? Thankfully, they put the grapes on the back label, if that was any help, and yes there was Touriga Nacianal and Argonez (mixing Portuguese and Spanish grapes there, an old Iberian tradition) but blending in Syrah and Merlot. This may be a way of “preserving” older appellations and allowing Portugal to modernize, but will it preserve or in the end, destroy that which it seeks to protect? That will now ultimately be decided in the market place, and that, my friends, is the monster that I tangle with in the preceding paragraphs, and the reason for these thoughts now is because the Languedoc gives me the perfect “in” on this subject.



The wines of the Langedoc are distant cousins of the Rhone further east, using Grenache and Syrah and even Mourvedre, but the regional grape of the Languedoc is actually Carignan. Carignan, like Grenache and Mourvedre, is actually a native Spainish varietal. It adds a certain earthy spiciness and herbal quality to the Languedoc that helps make it different from the Rhone. I think of Carignan as adding a kind of Zinfandel like bramble quality to the wines that traditionally were thought of as “rustic.” Because of this, the Carignan often got a bad rap and was pulled from many Languedoc vineyards in the push to make more “palatable” and popular wines, it is a business after all, well sort of. (Here we go!)


The entire reason or logic (logos, you’ll see why I suggest logos below) behind the French appellation system, was the idea that it was preserving terroir, and terroir as defined by the French was not just the physical environment, soil, weather, etc., but also included the grapes themselves, as local varietals and the wine making techniques. Terroir doesn’t “express itself” despite popular new generation conceits. For terroir to occur, we need people and what they plant to create something and interact with the landscape (that result is actually the terroir, terroir doesn’t exist “in” the soil, it is expressed through art). Sometimes those grapes are indeed native, indigenous: like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are to Burgundy or Sangiovese is to Tuscany, but many times the grapes are not native, ergo: Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan in France, the Sauvignon Blanc (it’s not native to the Loire or Sancerre!) or Aglianico in Italy, that was brought to Italy by the ancient Greeks (and every wine grape in America too). 


Now here is my little tid bit, my meager observation. If terroir is truly based on traditions and natural processes as well as human interaction, is that a business (or a science) or an art? I think that terroir is not a business, but an art. I don’t think the French government ever set out to plan an appellation system that would make the most money for the region or provide the best possible economic out come (although some growers might wish they had). It was more like a religious sort of thing, it tried to preserve the local customs and traditions believed to be associated with each region. It preserved (and some would say “froze”) what was “typicity” in 1930’s France. Carignan for example was not allowed in Burgundy because it played no role in Burgundian wine traditions, and Pinot was not allowed in the Languedoc or Rhone, as it was never grown there. This sort of thing has nothing to do with economics, I don’t mean it doesn’t affect economics and play an important role that results in economic outcomes, duh, but its purpose was not economic but cultural and artistic, in the sense that it was trying to preserve “arte,” the Greek concept of craft; making things by hand, and learning by tradition, and not by logic or rational philosophical or scientific methods. Which is why I threw in the word “logos” which actually means logical thought. The reason it often translates to “word” is because in ancient Greece, words were thought to be the vehicle for conveying rational thought. [Those of you familiar with the gospel of John might read the English translation "In the Beginning was the Word," etc, but what John is conveying is not the “word" as in scripture, but the “logos" or idea of divinity as the rational source of the universe, that’s the Greek sense of it anyway…] So in effect, the French government was trying to preserve the art of wine, not science, not economics. The traditional vinification and winemaking traditions and the grapes used did not develop from a logical scheme or plan, so they were not logos, they were “irrational” and artistic, they developed out of ad-hoc traditions, which I would love to talk about but will spare you the details. 


I hope this isn’t too confusing, I’m saying that the appellation system is logical and rational, but what it preserves is “irrational” or art, a system of ad-hoc methods and traditions that built up naturally and with no rational purpose of function behind them, like economics or science: there was no intention, no plan to create Chateauneuf-du-Pape, there was however, a plan to preserve what came to be CdP, that is the appellation system.


So, pulling Carignan from the vineyards of the Languedoc (and the French government even had bulldozers come in and aid in the destruction of many ancient Carignan vineyards during the 80’s and 90’s to “modernize” and “improve” the wines of the southwest), in the hope of removing the “rusticity” of the region, was certainly an economic decision, but is winemaking a business? It’s seems to me that the appellation system was not installed as an economic instrument but as a system of maintaining historic traditions in the hopes of preserving the art of French wine, like the art of French cheese and the art of French food, which the French take very seriously.  So what is really happening in the Languedoc when ancient vines are uprooted? That is surely a business decision, but it can conflict with the appellation system, which is art. So when I asked the question is winemaking a business, I was really asking, is it? Yes, it is, but no, it isn’t. There is another side to wine that wants to speak and express itself, and like everything else, art has to interact with economics, business and day to day living. And there is no doubt that even medieval monks were engaging in a business when they made wine and traded it on the market, or when peasants made wine and shipped it to taverns. And in this sense you could say that economics always played a role in the development of the appellation system anyway, not free market capitalist economics necessarily, but primitive exchange on any level is still economics. But my point is, what makes Languedoc unique? It is the Carignan grape to no small extent. The garrigue of the region is actually quite similar to the Rhone, although there is more shale and some different soil packages too, but most people, myself included, would have a hard time telling a GSM blend from Corbieres or Pic St Loup in the Languedoc from a GSM blend from the Rhone. It’s the Carignan that makes the difference. Now, pulling Carignan is an economic decision, but the planting of it and the traditional making of Languedoc wines was not. That was art, which had economic repercussion, but was not driven by them. As I said, yes economics exchange occurred as a result of wine, but people didn’t plant Carignan because they thought it would make them more money, they planted Carignan because their grand parents did, and their grand parents before them, or because it just happened to be growing there and so on. That’s art, that’s tradition.


So winemaking isn’t just a business. In America, where we are driven by economics and where there is no historic wine tradition, every winery is a business, to open up a restaurant is an economic decision, but in Europe, where wine and food are part of an ancient tradition that is organic and “natural” and not logical or rational, it is more art than science. But that is changing. That’s all I’m pointing out here. When economics and not art drives winemaking, that begins to mean that wine is responding to more rational, scientific intentions. People often forget that the French and European wine world was not invented to produce wine for the world, it was an organic process that simply made wine for local consumption, with a few regions, like Bordeaux, that might ship some of their better quality wines to far off England and Scotland. Nobody in 18th c. America was drinking Cahors or Minervois. To drink that stuff, you would have had to travel to France, as was so elegantly recorded in the diaries of Thomas Jefferson. So how is it that these peasant wine regions throughout Europe have come to ship wine all over the world? (and everyone growing grapes back in the 19th c. were peasants in Europe, with few exceptions, where the rich might have owned the land or Chateau, but of course hired peasants to take care of the vineyards).


Today the entire world drinks Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Rhine wine, Spanish Rioja, Chianti and Minervois! How did that happen? That’s another story, but yes, its an economic story. That’s a business decision. That sort of decision is why Carignan was being pulled from the Languedoc. But the reason Carignan was there in the first place, was art: the art of wine. If “art” doesn’t make you money, and you run a business, then you have to abandon whatever art or tradition you have to make ends meet, to make money. I think that’s what they call “selling out,” but we all have to eat... In the past, when the Languedoc wasn’t making wine for grocery shelves in Britain and North America and Japan and China, they grew whatever the heck they wanted, whatever it was they liked. Now, they are running a business, and they are finding out that they have to grow and make what people want. This represents a tremendous stress and challenge for the French appellation system and for traditional winemaking in Europe. Its not so much a problem for us in American, because we really don’t have this tradition so there is no apparent conflict. But in Europe, it is actually a huge deal, its like pulling teeth. We don’t have those deep “roots” so we don’t feel the pain, but the appellation system actually preserves those roots, and it has provided the world with an opportunity to taste traditional Rioja, Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Mosel and so many other wines of character and “typicity,” but that is and has been changing. It is in the way of things to change. So when you taste a Minervois with Carignan in it, despite the complaints of Jancis Robinson who calls it “qualitatively fairly disastrous” you are peering into the past, and when you taste a Chianti that is plumper and fuller than you expected, because it’s been dosed with 20% Merlot or Syrah, you are tasting the future. One is representing the affects of economics, the other, art. 


I don’t mean to subscribe to the theory that art and business cannot work together or compliment each other, and many will say that you cannot have one with out the other. Nor do I believe that art and science are necessarily antagonistic, that art is just one side of the brain and science the other. All I’m saying is that the older European appellation systems allowed us to visit and partake in terroir in a meaningful and direct way and that drinking wine, like eating French appellation cheese, is art, that’s what a connoisseur is, someone who appreciates and understands this rather deep thing that is actually going on when you pop open a bottle of Minervois or Cahors or eat a cheese from a region, like real Camembert from Normandy or Brebis from the Pyrenees or Bresse Chicken from Macon. It’s not about “liking” it, it’s about understanding it and letting it tell you where it came from and the two thousand years of tradition that created it. What do we know, how can we criticize a wine or cheese because we don’t like it when we don’t understand it? But now, economics and the science of economics enters into the equation, that’s different, that’s about peeling dollars out of our pockets and pleasing us, no matter how mediocre our taste might or might not be, or how little any of us may know about some old tradition. If Jancis Robinson thinks Carignan sucks, if Robert Parker thinks light wines stink and high alcohol reds are better, if people shopping at a grocery store in Los Angeles or Greenwood or Tokyo are now deciding what will be planted in the Languedoc, this changes everything. That’s all I’m saying.


This is why I so dislike wine critics and people like Robert Parker. Who gives a hoot what he likes? Why do people care? Why should what someone else likes drive your buying decision? And what on earth does that have to do with art or terroir? People often come back from Europe with glowing reports of the most average wines they had for 2 euros, telling me how great their experience was and how good the local cuisine and wines were, and did they check with Wine Spectator first to see if that vintage was any good or look for shelf talkers that said those wines were 90 points? Of course not. They may or may not have known it, but they were becoming connoisseurs! They were connecting to the place, the people, the roots. They were participating in terroir. Well, you don’t have to visit Europe to do that, that is the amazing thing about wine. Truly it is bottled poetry as the Muses say. It’s more than just brining a bag of rocks and dirt back from Italy or France, it is terroir, art, but when it seeks to please us, and only to taste like something we like, it will no longer be art, at least it will no longer present us with the picture of terroir as we know it today.