The Accidental Wine

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Grown in only a few of the world’s wine regions, dark, idiosyncratic Carmenère has found a comfortable home in Chile’s warm valleys.

Michael Schachner

Two decades ago, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a French ampelographer hired to help wineries in Chile’s Maule Valley determine what grape varieties were in their oldest vineyards, dropped a bombshell on his clients. Thousands of acres that the Chileans had long thought were Merlot were actually an obscure variety called Carmenère.

“Carmen-what?” the Chileans asked.

Originally imported from Bordeaux, Carmenère can be green and herbaceous if the grapes aren’t picked fully ripe—hence the uneven reputation of Chilean “Merlot” in the early 1990s.

Yet today, Carmenère—known for its deep color, plush tannins and unique, spicy aromas and flavors—is poised to pass Merlot and become Chile’s second most widely planted red variety after Cabernet Sauvignon. Many winemakers are working hard to turn it into a signature wine for a country whose global sales hit a plateau in recent years.

Given that about 98 percent of the world’s Carmenère exists here, the grape is already inextricably part of Chilean wine, for better or worse. It’s for the better if, like many in the Chilean wine community assert, Carmenère has positive attributes as a varietal red wine or as a component in Cabernet-led blends. 

Naysayers believe the wines are too loaded with olive and green characteristics to ever draw a serious following. The French were right to eradicate it, they say, and the Chileans are foolish for trying to make Carmenère into something it’ll never be: a world-class varietal wine.

Carmenère requires sun-drenched, dry growing conditions and minimal late-season rains so that grapes can ripen well into May (the equivalent of November in the Northern Hemisphere). 

Also, if soils are too fertile, the vines can overproduce, leading to vegetal aromas and flavors. 

Carmenère ripens best in Apalta and Marchigue in Colchagua, Peumo in Cachapoal, Huelquén in the Alto Maipo, Pencahue in the Maule Valley and Panquehue in the Aconcagua Valley.

“Low yields, along with dry conditions with easy draining soils, are the keys to getting Carmenère that’s ripe, round and not green,” says veteran winemaker Aurelio Montes, who has been working with the grape since the time when everyone thought it was Merlot.

“Too much vigor and it’ll be green forever, while the best vineyards are rich in iron and loam; the red color indicates that the ground is getting plenty of air,” he says.

Montes’s beliefs are shared by other winemakers who either dabble with or specialize in Carmenère, people like Andrés Caballero at Santa Carolina, Marcelo Retamal at De Martino, Marco Puyo at San Pedro, Francisco Baettig at Errazuriz, Alvaro Espinoza at Antiyal and Mario Geisse at Casa Silva.

Baettig, whose high-priced Kai has consistently garnered some of Wine Enthusiast’s highest ratings among varietally labeled Carmenères, adds that vine age is important in harvesting ripe berries. 

As Chileans embarked on a learning curve to understand the grape’s characteristics and leanings, it has only been in recent vintages that winemakers have been able to work with vineyards in their prime.

“There really aren’t any [pure] old-vine Carmenère vineyards,” Baettig says. “Even the oldest places like Apalta and Maule are field blends, where the Carmenère is mixed in with other things. 

“So, the good Carmenère vineyards are at most 10 to 15 years old, and more than almost any other variety, Carmenère needs to come from mature vines to be good.” 

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