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One of the modish wheezes of those who passionately espouse a particular grape variety is to genuflect to it by holding an international conference on the subject.

One of the modish wheezes of those who passionately espouse a particular grape variety is to genuflect to it by holding an international conference on the subject. When you're between harvests, it's an excuse if nothing else, for in-depth product familiarisation. Pinot Noir has long been a favourite of New Zealanders and Oregonians, riesling and grenache have had their moments under the international spotlight, and the Barossa Valley recently hosted its inaugural Shiraz Alliance.

Never before to my knowledge though has anyone remotely considered getting down on one knee to the carignan grape other than to pull it out of the ground. Carignan is widely regarded as the sturdy shire horse of the southern French vineyards, thanks to its rich colour, resistance to drought and capacity to hang on to acidity. So holding a conference on it is rather like foodies holding a potato peeler convention or fashionistas a big-knickers party. Yet there I was in the surreal environment of the Carignan Renaissance (see www.carignans.com), an event organised in Béziers by French winemakers, aimed at changing our perceptions of this lowliest of varieties.

The French can parler the parley, and the lofty words that flowed like claret could have convinced all but the most sceptical that this strapping, rustic yokel is a bit of a player after all. But it's the wines that have to walk the promenade and, to be fair, a handful of the pure carignan wines on show, not only from the South of France, but from Priorat in Spain, from California and South Africa, were very good indeed.

They were good because of the special treatment lavished on them by enthusiasts who have spotted the potential for creating concentrated wine from old vines. They are the exception. The humble carignan has been all but discarded in appellations such as Pic Saint Loup. While a maximum proportion is prescribed in many other areas, such as Minervois, which allows up to 30 per cent in the blend.

Indeed carignan forms a substantial proportion of the 100,000 hectares of vines uprooted in the last few years in the Languedoc to make way for so-called "improving" grapes such as syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. According to Jean-Philippe Granier, who runs the Coteaux du Languedoc office, "The authorities don't say that they're against carignan, but they provide the means for pulling it out. It's like not saying you don't like someone and then providing the means for getting rid of them!"

Yet in a number of important appellations such as Saint Chinian, Corbières and Fitou in particular, carignan remains the traditional variety, and much old carignan makes for a substantial part of classic southern blends when properly cared for and vinified. One of the main reasons grapes like carignan (cinsault is another) have been so pooh-poohed in the past is because winemaking itself was so much more rustic.

Today, growers who work hard at correcting the age-old faults of lack of acidity, overripeness and overoaking, are re-inventing carignan in blends of greater finesse generally. So while the change to syrah and other classics is part of an ongoing process of improvement, carignan remains a living heritage of Languedoc wine. Indeed, it has a valid claim to be this historic wine region's soul, albeit its rustic soul.

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