Bénicarlo and Bordeaux – Going Forward to the Past

A while ago I wrote about how Bordeaux used to improve its blends in the past. Of course it is not permitted to add wines from another region let alone country to Bordeaux today under the AOC rules but it is fascinating to trace the developments of the wine throughout the ages. The 18th century practice of adding wines from Hermitage in the Rhone to the Bordeaux blend is relatively well known. It was done in times when there was a particularly poor vintage (this also happened in Burgundy). The practise of Hermitaged Bordeaux goes back to 1759 and there are records which state that in 1775 Chateau Lafite was blended this way. However what isn’t quite so well known is that wines from Spain were also added to the Bordeaux blend.

Accounts from the early 1800s record that that wines from Bénicarlo in Valencia, north east Spain were added to the Bordeaux blend. One source from 1824 (Henry Christmas, George Augustus Frederick) states that each hogshead of Bordeaux had 3 or 4 gallons of Alicante or Bénicarlo added to it. This was called tracait a la anglaise (the English treatment). Cyrus Redding (1833) says that Claret was a mix of Bordeaux and Bénicarlo.

Bénicarlo seems to have been well known for its wines centuries ago, having a thriving wine trade with South America and a prestigious barrel industry – however now only empty terraces once filled with vines remain as a reminder of its past.

Now it seems that Bénicarlo is planning to revive its historic wine – the office for economic development and agriculture have begun a project to revive the growing of Carlón wine, which in the 18th and 19th centuries played a key role in the economic and social development of the town. The first documents mentioning wine growing in the region date back to the 13th century. Centuries later, in 1683, up to 16 million bottles of wine from Bénicarlo are believed to have been exported, with the export volume of Carlón wine averaging 30, 00 hectolitres a year.

Not including supplies to Latin America, the figures for 1834 show that more than 40,000 hectolitres were shipped to the UK alone (40%), Amsterdam, Hamburg and St. Petersburg 20%, Livorno and other Italian ports 17%, Brazil and the USA 13% and France 9%.

In order to move the project forward, the Carlón Winegrowers Association was set up, headed by the Mayor. This co-operative is open to everyone but in order to join members must plant at least 500 vines and earn either part or all of their income from agriculture. Experts believe that some old vines of the Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet) grape variety, which the association is aiming to revive, still survive in some areas around Bénicarlo.

Three farmers in Bénicarlo are due to start making the wine and although Bénicarlo will be the centre of Carlón wine production, surrounding communities such as Vinaròs, Peniscola, Alcala de Xivert, Sant Mateu, Cervera, Calig and Sant Jordi could also join the new initiative, as was once the case.

Bénicarlo is also another name for the Spanish grape Bobal which is native to the Utiel-Requena region in Valencia, Spain. The name derives from the Latin bovale, in reference to the shape of a bull’s head. Small quantities of Bobal are also grown in Rosellón (south of France) and in Sardinia (Italy). It’s well adapted to the hot Spanish summers with long, strong, trailing shoots which often completely cover the ground thus helping to conserve moisture. The red grapes are intensely and brightly coloured and produce deep coloured fruity red wines with a contains higher than average quantity of resveratrol.

It will be interesting to see how the Carlón Winegrowers Association develops – and what grape varieties they discover long forgotten amongst the terraces!

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