Carmenere is a grape with a story.
In 1867, Phylloxera was the vinous equivalent of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Few agricultural epidemics have impacted European industry as seismically as this now infamous, and still incurable, grapevine pest. Indeed, by the late 1870s, conservative estimates suggest that at least two thirds (and most likely three quarters) of all European vineyards were destroyed. Fortunes were lost, communities devastated, vines that had grown for centuries reduced to withered stumps – but from the wreckage one grape would emerge triumphant, and in a very unlikely fashion.
Once upon a time, Carménère was the sixth red grape of Bordeaux. A native of the left-bank, it was particularly prevalent in the vineyards of the Medoc, but large plantings could be found eastwards, in Graves and Pessac as well. To this day, a few scattered vines can still be found here, often hidden in the oldest post-Phylloxera vineyards of an estate, jumbled together in a field-blend of sorts with their more famous Merlot and Cabernet peers. And yet, for all intents and purposes, Carmenere has vanished from Bordeaux. Once an essential part of a winemaker’s repertoire (it is thought that Carmenere may have been the regions’ dominant grape before the rise of the aforementioned duo in the mid-1800s), the grape proved particularly submissive to the ravages of Phylloxera, and as the long years of replanting commenced, it was overlooked in favour of the current five famous Bordeaux varieties. A number of reasons have been proposed for this wholesale spurning, from historical low yields and a susceptibility to coulure (the failure of grape berries to develop following inclement weather over the flowering period), to the simple fact that there were no surviving vines to take new cuttings from, but whatever the reason, Carmenere seemed to have been resigned to the not-so-small compost bin of viticultural history.
Rewind thirty years, and 12,000 kilometres away, on the other side of the world, new and enterprising Chilean vignerons were hard at work thinking about what they wanted to grow. Modelling their new wineries on the famous and successful estates of Bordeaux, the Chileans began importing cuttings of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon for planting in the vineyards surrounding the capital, Santiago. The Chilean climate, being as perfectly adapted for viticulture as it is (and crucially isolated from the incoming Phylloxera, which it still is to this day), proved a boon for these immigrant grapes, and they continued to flourish alongside the burgeoning Chilean wine industry for the next century. What the Chileans didn’t realise however, is that along with their cuttings of Merlot, they imported a hidden cargo: Carmenere.
Over the course of the 20th century, Chilean Merlot developed a reputation for showcasing a unique and distinctive flavour profile. Prizes were brandished, questions were asked, and soon suspicions developed, yet it wasn’t until as recently as 1994 that DNA testing conducted in Montpellier discovered that many of the supposed Merlot vines planted throughout the country were in fact Carmenere. The grape that had all but died one hundred years ago, had survived – flourished, in fact – undetected in faraway South America. Shrugging off their embarrassment, in an act of PR brilliance, the Chileans embraced Carmenere like an old friend. Today, it is undoubtedly the country’s signature grape, producing wines that are flavourful, lauded, and enjoyed by millions around the world.
The taste of Carmenere
But enough history. What does it taste like? As mentioned above, it’s ancestral Bordelais origins hint at some of its characteristics. Carmenere is thought to have developed (alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) as an offspring of Cabernet Franc, and this parentage is emphasised in its Franc-esque flavour profile. Particularly prevalent on the nose are somewhat savoury, slightly earthy notes akin to green bell pepper and tapenade, reminiscent in particular of the wines of Chignon and Bourgeuil in the Loire valley (also Cabernet Franc). These distinct, and perhaps unusual flavours are a result of a group of aromatic chemical compounds known as pyrazines. Levels of pyrazines differ naturally between varieties, and levels found in finished wines are usually a result of viticultural, rather than vinification choices, but other grapes that possess these ‘vegetal’ characteristics include, as you may expect, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec.
Aside from its distinctive savoury qualities, Carmenere has plenty of fruit flavour to offer. Red fruit notes such as raspberry and cherry are a common theme, alongside darker, softer fruits such as plum. When used correctly with oak, and in the case of premium examples, these flavours can develop into richer, cocoa like notes with distinct, enticing tobacco and cedar wood nuances. These wines are capable of periods of extended ageing, and finer bottlings can mature over time into wines that nod in style to those of their ancestral Bordeaux chateau. True to form as a Bordelais descendent, even when labelled as a varietal, Carmenere is often used in a blend in conjunction with other, supporting grapes. Chilean wine law currently allows for up to 15% of any wine labelled singularly as ‘Carmenere’ to be comprised of another variety, and winemakers typically blend in a portion of Syrah or Petit Verdot to emphasise darker fruit notes and lend the wine a firmer, more tannic backbone.
As far as the actual growing of this grape goes, Carmenere is considered one of the more difficult varieties to cultivate successfully. Perhaps a degree of forgiveness is owed to the post-Phylloxera winegrowers of Bordeaux, because even today the grape poses challenges. A mid-to-late ripening variety, Carmenere ripens 4-5 weeks later than Merlot, requiring plenty of sun exposure and consistently warm early-autumnal temperatures to produce a relatively low yield of small, dark skinned berries – in other words, Carmenere needs a consistency and quality of weather that maritime Bordeaux fails to provide each and every year. A few parcels of Carmenere hold out in other parts of the world, notably in the Friuli region of north eastern Italy, and a smattering of vines in Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps the Chilean success with this grape will inspire more adventurous plantings elsewhere – or perhaps this success will be perceived as a monopoly, and this notoriously demanding grape will be overlooked once again in favour of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Only time will tell.
And that’s about it. The fact that it’s a fantastic food wine should probably be mentioned. Carmenere’s naturally high acidity, fine, restrained tannins and intriguing savoury flavours make it a perfect match for dishes such as roast pork with parsley sauce, minted lamb chops or the old Bordeaux classic, duck confit. But however you want to drink it, make sure you do. It’s survived a lot, and come a long way, so look past the Merlot and consider a Carmenere. Here at Wineman, we’re pleased to have some excellent examples to choose from.
This blog was written by Christian Lowe - A wine student at Plumton College for wine for Wineman.co.uk. We fully support all students of wine here at Wineman and if you want to contribute a similar article please get in touch with us. To view the great selection of Carménère wines available at Wineman just go to our Carmenere selection. For more information on Carmenere you can visit Wikipedia at this link