Today, we raise a glass to Chile’s flagship wine: Carménère.
This bold, complex red varietal, now a notable stand-alone wine but originally used for blends, is Chile’s version of Malbec; a high-quality, New World nectar of the gods that’s putting its parent country on the wine-world map.
In honor of World Carménère Day, we’re going back to the roots of this once-thought-extinct, Old to New World vine, exploring its distinctive taste and how it became a global ambassador for Chilean winemaking.
What is it?
A medium-body red wine regularly compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère is actually a genetic cousin of Merlot. Its deep red, almost crimson, color was the inspiration for its name: carmin, the French word for crimson.
The savory taste is often described as being “softer” than a Cabernet Sauvignon, with lush tannins, an almost spicy mix of tastes and aromas, and a gently bitter, peppercorn-esque finish. Drinkers and sommeliers frequently pick out notes of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, spices, and a husky taste similar to that of the scent of dark chocolate, tobacco, and leather. In its early years, it can also have a flavor similar to green peppers.
Carménère originates from the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France, the realm of such wine legends as Burgundy and Merlot. Despite these pedigreed cousins and surroundings, the terroir of France proved insufficient to properly grow the vine, and growers and vintners largely ignored it. There were some years where no vintages of Carmenere were produced due to low or poor quality yield.
When the great Phylloxera plague of the 1850s swept through French vineyards, devastating crops and destroying matured vines, Carménère was thought to have been wiped out. Luckily, a few cuttings survived, having been carried to the New World by colonizers. It was in the verdant, fertile valleys near the capital city of Santiago where the vines were able to take root and flourish.
However, for years, the grapes were thought to be a unique varietal of Merlot. Because of this confusion, they were not allowed to fully ripen and were mixed with pure Merlot grapes, producing a yield of subpar vintages in the 1990s that soured Chile’s growing reputation as a serious Merlot maker.
It wasn’t until ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot came along in 1994 to evaluate Chilean vineyards that Carménère was finally recognized for what it was, and could start to be cultivated separately and treated as its own wine.
Chilean Climate and Terrain
Why would Carménère thrive in Chile when it couldn’t thrive in France, the cradle of great wine? Carménère is fickle, requiring the proper climate and terrain in order to live up to its full potential. Chile’s sheltered central valleys offer unique advantages. Humid, moist air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean gets trapped by the natural barrier of the Andes mountains, and with dry soil, plentiful sunshine, and a late summer rainfall, the grapes have ample time to ripen and can be harvested at their prime.
Where to Find it
In Chile, most Carménère vineyards are located in the Central Zone, namely in the Colchagua, Maipo, and Rapel valleys near Santiago, and many vineyards offer tours and tastings to visitors. To find Chilean Carménère outside of Chile shouldn’t be too hard. As of 2015, Chile is the fourth biggest exporter of wine in the world, mainly exporting to the US, the United Kingdom, China, and throughout Europe. In liquor stores, bars, and restaurants around the world, curious drinkers can be introduced to this almost-lost wine thanks to some of Chile’s most well-known and popular exporting vineyards, such as Concha y Toro.
For a taste of non-Chilean Carménère, there are several regions in Italy, California, and Walla Walla, Washington where Carménère has also been able to find a foothold.
When to Drink and Pairings
Most wine experts and sommeliers will advice that Carménère is a wine that’s best to drink young, within the first few years, allowing time for the more herbaceous aspects of the wine’s personality to mellow and let the more biting, acidic components and flavors to shine through.
As with many red wines, Carménère pairs nicely with hearty meat dishes, and is a popular choice for Chilean asados (barbecues).
So cheers to you, Carménère! A toast to this vivacious libation, and happy World Carménère Day!