What is Cariñena and where is it found?
Cariñena is a variety with many names. Outside Spain you’ll most likely see it referred to as Carignan, whilst inside Spain you can find it being called Mazuelo in Rioja and Samsó in Catalunya.
Naming conventions aside, Cariñena was once the dominant grape variety in much of Spain, as well as southern France. In fact, its popularity in areas like Languedoc-Roussillon made it France’s most planted grape variety at one point in the 20th century. The main reason for this was high yield. This was a big plus in post-war Europe, when consumers were less discriminating, and winemakers admired the vine’s ability to churn out more than 300 hectolitres of wine per hectare (which is about three times the allowed yield in most self-respecting DOs). Of course, such high yields meant some pretty poor quality, insipid wine. The grape’s reputation suffered a lot as a result, and plantings dropped as it fell out of favour.
But these days it has staged a bit of a comeback, and in Spain you’ll find the variety in Aragón – it’s named after the town of Cariñena, which also gives its name to one of Aragón’s three DOs – but also in Rioja and Catalunya. In Priorat in particular, you’ll find old vine, extremely low yield Cariñena – often called Samsó in Catalan – can produce wines with fine tannins, and lots of depth of flavour and complexity. You’ll often find it blended with Garnacha or, increasingly on its own.
Cariñena's main characteristics
Cariñena is a late-ripening variety. Its buds appear later than other varieties and its fruit ripens later, which makes it a warmer climate grape. That’s why it’s been so popular for so long in countries around the Mediterranean, including in places like Israel and Lebanon. While it enjoys heat, it’s susceptible to powdery mildew in damper climates so winemakers have to be careful.
In the winery, Cariñena’s low flavour profile means it’s often used as a blending grape. In Rioja, Mazuelo as it’s known there, is valued because its high tannins and acidity make it a good partner for Tempranillo-based wines designed to be aged for a few years before being drunk. The older, lower yield examples can give much richer favoured wines – think of Christmas cake fruits and spice – but the grapes need careful handling as they can be prone to reduction, or that slightly sulphury smell you can get when wines have too little oxygen.
What does Cariñena taste like?
When bottled on its own and left to age for a bit to soften all those tannins, Cariñena can give deliciously full-bodied red wines with bags of dark fruit flavour that go really well with dishes like roast lamb or stews. The best examples are from DOs like Priorat, Montsant or Terra Alta in southern Catalunya, or Empordà if you’re further north up near the French border. Look out for words on the label like Cepas Viejas (Vinyes Velles in Catalan), which denote old vines and more concentrated flavours.