Italy, like France, offers a world of wine styles within a single country: dry Italian white wines ranging from lively and minerally to powerful and full-bodied; cheap and cheerful Italian red wines in both a cooler, northern style and a richer, warmer southern style; structured, powerful reds capable of long aging in bottle; sparkling wines; sweet wines and dessert wines.
Most of Italy enjoys a relatively warm climate, and the southern portion of the country can be particularly hot in the summer months. However, Italy's Apennine mountain chain, which traverses the country from north to south, provides an almost infinite number of soil types and exposures, as well as favored hillside sites in virtually every region, where vines can be cultivated at higher, cooler altitudes. Mountainous terrain has also resulted in the segregation of many small wine regions, enabling dozens of indigenous grape varieties to survive in near isolation. Here, Italy markedly differs from most of the wine world, which is becoming increasingly international in nature.
But Italian wine, as most North Americans know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s, only a tiny proportion of Italy's wines were even bottled by the farmer who grew the grapes. Most Italian wine was consumed by the local market. The Italian government's DOC system (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), created in the 1960s, imposed more explicit standards and thereby improved Italian wine quality while at the same clarifying the labeling of wines and thus making it far easier for Italian producers to ship their wines abroad. (Today DOCG -- Controllata e Garantita -- is theoretically the highest level in the quality pyramid of Italian wine, with this special status more recently granted to such historically important Italian wine areas as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and others: areas that had previously enjoyed DOC status for at least five years.)
Of course, some of the most innovative Italian wine makers quickly began to look for ways to escape the restrictions of this system. They believed that DOC laws actually prevented them from making the best possible wines -- for example, by proscribing the use of certain grape varieties or by requiring them to age their wines in wood barrels longer than they believed was beneficial in some years. Those with a more independent bent essentially opted out of the system, instead producing wines that were simply classified as Vini da Tavola (table wines) but that in a number of cases surpassed the "official" best Italian wines in quality and price. (A new law passed in 1992 created the IGT category, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, for the innovative Vini da Tavola for which DOCs were not yet created.) These trailblazers have revolutionized Italian wine over a period in which French wines have merely "evolutionized."
Soft, palate-caressing wines, with notes of red cherry and nutmeg
Grilled meats, stews, hearty fare
The Carignan grape suffers from the curse of high yields. Until recently the most widely planted red-wine grape in France, Carignan comes from vines that can produce as much as 11 tons of fruit per acre. These high yields mean that there's plenty of wine to go around; often more than the market can handle. This lack of interest is exacerbated by the tendency of high-yielding vines to grow poorly concentrated fruit, especially in the absence of devoted efforts at pruning in the vineyard.
Certainly, there is fine justification for the efforts, sponsored by the European Union, to pull Carignan vines from vineyards in France in the last decade. The surplus of wine was undeniable. Much of this wine had little to recommend it. But when produced from very old vines that are carefully tended, Carignan can help craft characterful and concentrated wines. The best examples of this grape come from the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation in southern France. Even here, Carignan is rarely used to make single varietal wines, as AOC regulations require that it be blended with other grapes. Consequently, it is generally mixed with Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Other appellations in southern France, including Costieres de Nîmes, Corbieres and Minervois, also produce interesting, and reasonably priced blends incorporating the Carignan grape.
For single-varietal expressions of Carignan, look to Sardinia. Here, the grape yields palate-caressing wines with aromas and flavors of red cherry and nutmeg. Again, the success of the grape is highly dependent on the wine-maker, but with the proper care, these wines can be quite interesting. Look to wines from Santadi, arguably the best cooperative on the island.
Some California producers have also begun making single-varietal bottlings of Carignan from old vines. Look to Ridge Vineyards and Bonny Doon for reliable examples.