Wine

Once ‘lost,’ carménère is now a Chilean showpiece wine

A good wine should have a good story. Carménère has one, and it’s worth hearing.

Back in the 1990s, grape growers in Chile puzzled over why some of the vines in their merlot vineyards got ripe so late, and why their leaves were so different, turning bright crimson late in the season.

So in 1994 they brought in a respected French botanist, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, who, after some study, declared the vines weren’t merlot at all. They were carménère.

Carménère had been considered nearly extinct. In the 1800s, it had been one of the grapes blended into France’s famous red Bordeaux wines to add its deep, violet color.

But it was finicky, difficult to grow. So when the great phylloxera root louse plague wiped out nearly every grape in France in the 1870s, growers didn’t bother with it when they replanted.

For the next 100 years, even longer, carménère was lost.

When it was rediscovered, the wine world wondered how it had arrived in Chile. It turned out that in the 1850s, Chilean growers had imported a few carménère vines in shipments of merlot vines. And, in those casual days, they simply planted them in their merlot fields.

The rediscovery was a watershed for Chilean wine.

In that country’s warmer, Mediterranean-style climate, carménère flourished. Wine critics fell over themselves to praise it.

Deep violet in color. Softer than cabernet but firmer than merlot. Intense floral aromas. Flavors of crème de cassis, red raspberries, blackberries, espresso, even tobacco and smoke. Silky, dense, juicy, savory.

But still finicky to grow.

So when Chile’s giant Concha y Toro winery decided to plant carménère in 1998, it took pains in choosing where it should go.

It set up four tiers of vineyard locations and four tiers of wines — an $11 wine with grapes from around Chile, a $17 wine with grapes grown only on certain riverbanks, a $25 wine from carefully selected single vineyards in Chile’s Rapel Region, a $40 wine with grapes only from prized selected plots within those single vineyards.

The results are in the tasting notes below.

Fermented all by itself, carménère is a bit soft for big grilled steaks. But it’s great with complex beef and pork stews, roast lamb, venison, spicy barbecue, pasta with spicy tomato sauce, cheese casseroles.

For bolder dishes, winemakers sometimes blend in a few percent of sturdier cabernet sauvignon.

Still today, carménère is mostly a Chilean wine, although a few vines are springing up in California, Washington, Australia, New Zealand and Italy.

It could become what malbec (which also has French ancestry) is to Argentina — Chile’s flagship wine.

Highly recommended

▪ 2012 Terrunyo Carménère, by Concha y Toro, DO Block 27, Peumo Vineyard, Cachapoal Valley, Rapel Region, Chile (85 percent carmenere, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon): dark violet hue, hint of oak, concentrated aromas and flavors of black cherries and black plums and spice, lush fruit, ripe tannins, silky body; $40.

▪ 2012 Marques de Casa Concha Carménère, by Concha y Toro, DO Peumo Vineyard, Cachapoal Valley, Rapel Region, Chile (85 percent carmenere, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon): Inky hue, hint of oak, concentrated aromas and flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, soft, ripe tannins, $25.

Recommended

▪ 2013 Gran Reserva “Riverbank Series” Carménère, DO Peumo Vineyard, Cachapoal Valley, Rapel Region, Chile (90 percent carmenere, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon): deep red hue, hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black raspberries and black pepper, mellow tannins, hearty and smooth; $17.

▪ 2013 Casillero del Diablo Carménère, Central Valley, Chile: hint of toasty oak, medium body, aromas and flavors of black plums and mocha, soft and smooth; $11.

Fred Tasker: fredtaskerwine@gmail.com

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