Wine students are taught that the red wines of Bordeaux can rely on five grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The truth, however, is that six grapes are allowed. It’s just that one grape — Carménère – virtually disappeared from France in the mid-19th century.
The grape was “rediscovered” just 15 years ago, and in the past few years, it’s become Chile’s signature grape. And it could be on the verge of taking off.
When the Phylloxera plague hit Europe in 1867, most vineyards were destroyed – and Carménère was hit so hard that it was presumed extinct. French growers literally couldn’t find any, so focused on replanting the other five grapes.
Before Phylloxera, though, winegrowers in Chile brought cuttings of Carménère over from Bordeaux, and confused the grapes with Merlot. The Carménère in Chile remained healthy – free from the diseases that plagued it in Bordeaux. And for nearly 150 years, the grape was harvested and processed with Merlot – giving Chilean red wines markedly different flavor profiles.
In 1994, a French oenologist, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, came to look at Chile’s odd Merlot grapes – and concluded that they were, in fact, Carménère. In 1998, his discovery was officially recognized by the Chilean Department of Agriculture.
Within a few years, the industry started making a concerted effort to promote its “signature grape.” As Hernan Gras, owner of Vina MontGras in the Colchagua Valley, told the Los Angeles Times back in 2006, “We make extremely good Cabs in Chile, but so does California and Australia and there are always the French. Carménère is a symbol for the country, like Malbec is for Argentina and Zinfandel is for the United States.”
This effort makes sense.
Argentina successfully put Malbec — also an unheralded Bordeaux transplant — on the map. And the New Zealand wine industry has taken off thanks to its focus on Sauvignon Blanc.
The Chilean wine industry’s efforts appear to be gaining steam.
Will Lyons, the wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal Europe, recently wrote about Chilean wines – and how much he enjoyed the 2009 Errazuriz Carménère Single Vineyard Carmenère.
“[It] really shone,” Lyons wrote, “with a deep, luscious character, bags of fruit and the sort of complexity one wants from a wine at this price. Talk to people in the wine world and they like to speculate what will be the next grape variety fad after Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Malbec. After tasting a number of remarkable Chilean Carménères, I wouldn’t bet against it.”
I think Lyons is right.
Last week, I participated in a virtual wine tasting held by Wines of Chile together with Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer, eight winemakers in Santiago, and about 50 U.S. bloggers. Called Carménère & Curry: Spice it Up!, I sampled eight different wines. Seven were 85 percent or more Carménère; one was a blend that also included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.
On the downside, too many of the wines were green (Carménère is a late-ripening variety, so prone to under-ripe flavors) and some smelled more like oak than like wine.
Overall, though, I was quite impressed – especially considering the price points. The wines ranged in price from $13 to $24, and all were definitely worthy of weeknight drinking. The soft tannins and juicy acidity made the wine easy-to-drink – and a natural l fit for so many foods. Surprisingly, the Carménère worked incredibly well with spicy foods — I was eating a curry dish with a generous dose of cayenne pepper, and the wines worked perfectly. I suspect Carménère would also work well with a Mexican mole. You can’t say this for most dry reds.
So do yourself a favor and pick up some Carménère on your next trip to a wine shop!