Carménère is a dark and delicious red wine that has become the poster-child for the wines of Chile. Coming from the right vineyards it makes a wine that has early approachability, lots of body and a spicy, an almost rustic personality. If you have not yet tried Carménère, we think you should. Think Bordeaux, with less tannin, and generally a lot less expensive.
Carménère originally came from Bordeaux. Though most people today think of there being 5 Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot) they used to think of 6 and included Carménère. Genetically, Carménère has been shown to be the offspring of Cabernet Franc. It was planted throughout the Medoc and widely planted in Graves.
Carménère was a somewhat difficult grape to grow as it was, to some extent, prone to develop odium, a leaf fungus that can occur in damp seasons. The vine was also very susceptible to phylloxera, the vine destroying louse that infested much of Bordeaux in the 1860s resulting in near total destruction of the region’s grape crop. Bordeaux replanted their vineyards on phylloxera-resistant root stock but for the most part did not replant Carménère, due to it not taking well to the grafting process and its susceptibility to other disease.
In the mid 1800s, Carménère vines from Bordeaux were brought to Chile and propagated there and mistakenly thought to be Merlot.
A good deal of Carménère was planted alongside Merlot and labeled as such. The Chileans can easily be forgiven for making this mistake. First, the leaves of the two different varieties look nearly identical. Second, there is a good deal of similarity in the taste of the wines made by these two different grapes: both show dark red fruits, milder tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, spicy and can be herbaceous.
For over a century, much of the Chilean wine labeled as Merlot was in fact a blend of Merlot and Carménère or just Carménère!
In 1994, French ampelographer (someone who studies the botanical qualities of grapes) Jean-Michel Boursiquot noticed that some Merlot vines were ripening 3 to 4 weeks after other vines within the same vineyard. DNA testing was undertaken and resulted in the discovery that roughly half of vines planted in Chile and thought to be Merlot were in fact Carménère. This created a big problem for vineyard managers having parts of their crop ripening at such different times. If the crop was brought in when the Merlot had ripened, the Carménère would come in under-ripe and possess excessive bell pepper and stemmy characteristics. If the crop was brought in when the Carménère was ripe, the Merlot had become jammy or excessively alcoholic. It was a no-win situation and served to damage the overall reputation of wines from Chile.
Understanding this difference has allowed the Chileans to significantly improve the quality of their Merlots and their Carménère. Generally, the two grapes are vinified separately and harvested at different times.
Carménère is important to the Chilean viticultural scene with 10,000 hectares planted there. While that is only 10% of grape vine plantings in the country, it is 80% of the world’s plantings of Carménère. Other areas that grow Carménère are Bordeaux with small amounts found at such esteemed estates as Valandraud, Brane Cantenac, Haut Bailly and Clerc Milon. It has shown to make very good wines in Washington State (Brian Carter blends it with great success as does Jason Long) and in a few spots in Napa and Sonoma. Italy has some plantings as does New Zealand.
Carménère takes it name from the French word carmin which means crimson. Though many red wines could be described as crimson when they are young, that is not the reason behind the name. It is due to the brilliant red colour that Carménère leaves take on and the red of the season.
Carménère likes a long growing season with moderate to warm temperatures. It is a relatively thirsty plant and will require irrigation when grown in very dry climates. While the Bordelais used to think this variety was susceptible to disease, the Chileans have not found it to be problematic.
Carménère can be labeled as just Carménère and have up to 15% of other varieties in the blend. We have mostly encountered Syrah and Petit Verdot as blending partners for Carménère. In cooler vintages Carménère’s relatively high level of pyrazines (a chemical compound found in grapes and other foods that imparts a slightly bell pepper or green peppercorn nuance) can standout and detract from the taste. Blending in a bit of grapes from the more black fruit end of the spectrum can improve the outcome.
We recently tried a Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre from the 2011 vintage. This is very good representation of what a typical Carménère made from organic vineyards in Chile’s well regarded Colchagua Valley by a top producer. The colour of the wine is a very dark red/purple. It has a very expressive bouquet of morello cherry, plum with whiffs of brown spices and hints of vanilla. The body is full, and the mouthfeel is soft and plush. There is good acidity which keeps the wine defined but the texture is smooth and almost creamy but with enough spice to give it a slightly rustic feel. The pyrazine (bell pepper) notes the grape is so known for when not fully ripened are very much in the background, barely perceptible and do not take away from the wine but add complexity. Flavours of raspberry and blackberry dominate the taste profile. Further complexity comes from the baking spice notes, particularly clove and hints of nutmeg. There is a good dose of spicy black pepper on the long finish. To describe it in terms of other wines, it seems closest to a Washington Merlot or perhaps a Tempranillo from Toro in Spain, known to make big and somewhat rustic wines. With its full body and spicy profile, it would make a great pairing with a grilled steak or leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic. Big wines like this need foods with big flavours to keep up.