Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

A Once-Forgotten Grape is Reborn in California

Photograph by Maren Caruso

If you haven’t heard of the wine grape carignane (carignan in its native France), you’re not alone. But a hundred years ago, it was one of the most widely planted reds in Northern California, primarily in Mendocino. The vine’s high-yielding nature made it popular among growers, which led to a massive overcropping and a low-quality output, used mainly for jug wine. Talk about a grape with a serious image problem.

But these days, the forgotten fruit is regaining status, thanks to a handful of Bay Area winemakers, who are coaxing stunning results from some of the state’s oldest vines. “Carignane was well on its way to extinction,” says Matt Licklider, co-owner of Lioco in Sonoma, who felt compelled to “keep it alive in California.” Sam and Jessica Bilbro of Sonoma’s Idlewild are also fans. “It’s a serious varietal with depth, especially with old vines, yet it’s also juicy and downright delicious,” Sam explains.

At its best, carignane can be bold and exciting. The wine combines tart cranberry and cherry flavors with dark chocolate and notes of sage, rosemary, and lavender. It has a naturally high acidity and gritty tannins—imagine the spiciness of syrah, the juiciness of grenache, and the gutsiness of mourvèdre all in one. It is a dream when paired with foods from classic cassoulet to grilled lamb chops to eggplant lasagna. (Carignane is one of the few wines that can stand up to tomato sauce.) What is old is fresh again.

Ready to dip in? Sip on these:

2011 Ridge Carignane, Buchignani Ranch: A multilayered drink with loads of ripe black cherry and fig.
Find it: $26 at Ridge Vineyards tasting rooms (Cupertino, Healdsburg)

2012 Idlewild Carignan, Testa Vineyard: A bright wine with flavors of mulberry, sage, coffee, and black pepper. 
Find it: $34 at Little Vine (North Beach)

2012 Donkey & Goat Carignane, Mendocino: Think black cherry, black olives, and crunchy berry fruit. 
Find it: $40 at La Movida (SoMa)

2011 Wertzberger Carignan, Ruth’s Vineyard: Cranberry and pomegranate make for rich flavor and depth. 
Find it: $15 at William Cross (Russian Hill)

2011 Lioco Carignan Sativa, Mendocino: Hints of herb evoke the region’s other popular crop. 
Find it: $28 at Punchdown Cellars (Santa Rosa)

This article was published in 7x7's November issue. Click here to subscribe.