CARMÉNÈRE FROM CHILE: THE NEXT HOT RED GRAPE?

Not altogether unlike malbec in Argentina, carménère came to Chile from France (specifically Bordeaux) in the latter 1800s. An offspring of cabernet franc, it now is almost exclusively grown in Chile. Even there, it still lives in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon but is poised to become Chile’s signature grape, again as with malbec in Argentina.

Apparently from the beginning, largely due to poor recordkeeping, what many growers thought to be merlot was actually carménère. In the late 1980’s, Viña Carmen became the first to discover this and it proved true throughout Chile. Many producers ripped out their carménère to replant with real merlot but, luckily for us, many others decided to keep the carménère. By 1996, wineries began to release varietally labeled Carménère.

Benefitting from the long, warm growing seasons in such sites as the Colchagua, Maipo and Maule valleys, this late ripener can produce world-class wines. As with any wine grape, there are regional variations but Carménère wines have evolved over the ensuing 20 years from rustic (a bit rough with too much green character) to over extracted and tannic an more recently to fresh, lush and moderate alcohol.

Most Carménère now (when allowed to ripen properly) supplies intense, rich red and black fruit, some spice (even fresh tobacco, coffee, cocoa, leather), smooth texture, and solid but supple tannins. As with most grapes, some blending – usually with cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot or syrah – benefits the final wine. It helps that the wines are food friendly (particularly poultry, game and rich vegetable dishes).

Quality has reached the point where prices for the best wines can approach $100 a bottle. But, assuming most readers are unfamiliar with the grape, I suggest starting at the introductory level. With one exception, none of the wines below are more than $20 retail and they all deliver a lot of character for the money.

2013 Viña Maipo Gran Devoción ($25). Founded in 1948 in the Maipo Valley, Maipo has been owned by Concha y Toro, the largest Chilean wine company, since 1968. This Carménère/Syrah (15% syrah) offers red fruits, peppery spice and a lush texture.

2012 Viña Maquis ($20). This 100 year-old, family owned winery uses estate grown fruit, including 15% cabernet franc, to craft a wine with aromas of red plum and boysenberry and a light woody note, with good depth, a fresh mouthfeel, and hint of anise.

2013 Viña Ventisquero “Grey” ($20). Barely twenty years old, Ventisquero’s “Grey” portfolio features a single block of vines, in this case from the Trinidad Vineyard in Maipo Valley. You’ll find strong tobacco, dark berries, savory notes and fresh tannins.

2013 Casa Silva Cuvee Colchagua ($15). Another family owned winery, this one dates to 1892 with connections to the valley’s first European settlers. Expect straightforward, jammy black fruit, peppery and woody notes with cocoa and a soft texture.

 

2014 Viña Santa Carolina Cachapoal Estate Reserva ($11). Founded in 1875, basically in what now is the city of Santiago, this is Chile’s third largest wine producer. From the La Rinconada Estate in Rapel Valley, there is a lot of wine here – succulent blackberry and plum, oaky and spicy, with mild tannins – from not much money.

2011 Viña Carmen Gran Reserva Apalta Vineyard ($16). Founded in 1850, this is one of the oldest names in Chilean wine and now one of the country’s largest wineries. Enjoy aromas of toasty oak and spicy herbs with fresh berries and soft texture. Blended with 4% carignan and 2% tempranillo.

2013 Criterion Collection Reserva ($16). From a négociant who buys wines from several countries, this one has a nice balance of berries, hints of brown spices and a savory notes. A good introduction the grape.

Looking for a different wine experience? With its distinctive flavor profile, food friendliness and generally reasonable prices Carménère from Chile deserves more consumer attention. It certainly has mine.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.