12 Top Carmenères of Chile
Grown in only a few of the world’s wine regions, idiosyncratic Carmenère has found a comfortable home in Chile’s warm valleys.
Known for its deep color, plush tannins and unique, spicy aromas and flavors, Carmenère is poised to pass Merlot and become Chile’s second most widely planted red variety after Cabernet Sauvignon.
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.
Given that about 98% of the world’s Carmenère exists in Chile, the grape is already inextricably part of the country’s wine identity, 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.
A Matter of Opinion
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 crops can ripen well into May (the equivalent of November in the Northern Hemisphere).
Based on those core requirements, Carmenère ripens best in places like Apalta and Marchigue in Colchagua, Peumo in Cachapoal, Huelquén in the Alto Maipo, Pencahue in the Maule Valley and Panquehue in the Aconcagua Valley.
Also, if soils are too fertile, the vines can overproduce, leading to vegetal aromas and flavors.
“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,” he says.
The Future of Carmenère
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, Ignacio Recabarren at Concha y Toro 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.”
Concha y Toro 2011 Terrunyo Entre Cordilleras Peumo Vineyard Block 27 (Peumo); $50, 91 points.
Electric purple in color, this conveys aromas of green herbs and berry fruits. Boysenberry, blueberry and blackberry flavors come with undertones of green herbs and licorice, while the finish is aggressive and moderately complex. Drink through 2019. Excelsior Wines.
Santa Carolina 2009 Herencia (Peumo); $90, 92 points.
Bold, toasty and ripe on the nose, with tobacco and vanilla nuances. Huge on the palate, but it has shape, with toasty, chocolaty flavors along with herbal plum and berry notes. Drink through 2016. Carolina Wine Brands USA. Editors’ Choice.
Viu Manent 2010 El Incidente (Colchagua Valley); $50, 92 points.
Toasty, herbal aromas of smoked meat, leather and black fruits are in the lead. It’s flush and thick, with flavors of baked blackberry, herbs, spice, mint and pepper that finish with a mocha flavor and chewy tannins. Drink through 2017. Baystate Wine & Spirits.
Montes 2010 Alpha (Colchagua Valley); $25, 91 points.
Black-fruit aromas along with black olive, licorice and herbal notes drive the nose. Round, friendly and textured, with a mix of roasted plum, berry, herb, spice, olive and tomato flavors. Balanced on the finish. Drink through 2016. TGIC Importers.
Santa Rita 2008 Pehuén (Apalta); $70, 91 points.
Cool, herbal aromas of cola, pine, juniper, fine oak and savory berry fruits form the opening. Flavors of stewed cherry, baked plum and cassis come with savory support. Saucy in taste, with gravitas and length to the finish. It’s full, deep and still fresh after several years in bottle. Drink through 2018. Palm Bay International.
Errazuriz 2011 Kai (Aconcagua Valley); $235, 91 points.
This shows fully ripe aromas of loamy blackberry combined with graphite, while flavors of lemony oak, olive, mocha and vanilla work alongside core berry. The rich palate is grounded by good acidity. Drink through 2018. Vintus LLC.
Undurraga 2012 Sibaris Reserva Especial (Colchagua Valley); $17, 89 points.
Spicy, earthy cherry and cassis aromas are textbook. Juicy, bright and substantive in feel, it features red berry, woodspice and herbal flavors. Minty and chocolaty on the finish, with herbal, spicy notes. Drink now. Testa Wines Of The World.
Santa Alicia 2012 Reserva (Maipo Valley); $10, 85 points.
Hard spice and minty green aromas dominate. It has a mildly creamy feeling, with toast, herbs, chocolate and spicy berry fruit flavors. Drink now. Halby Marketing. Best Buy.
Viña Bisquertt 2010 Ecos de Rulo Single Vineyard (Colchagua Valley); $20, 90 points.
Smells a bit flat and earthy, with cool, herbal berry aromas as well as coffee and spice. Flush and jammy on the palate, it has a mix of spicy black fruit, licorice, espresso and chocolate flavors that end long and lightly herbal. Drink now. Prestige Wine Group.
Lapostolle 2010 Cuvée Alexandre Apalta Vineyard (Colchagua Valley); $25, 91 points.
Opaque in color and super-rich on the nose, with dominant aromas of earth, leather, baked fruit and spice. Lush and chunky, maybe a touch soft, it conveys earthy, herbal flavors of dark fruit, plum and chocolate. Drink through 2016. Terlato Wines International.
San Pedro 2010 Tierras Moradas (Maule Valley); $50, 91 points.
Plum, berry, licorice and balsamic aromas are powerful. The wine is chunky and heavy, but not ponderous. Flavors of prune, rooty spices, mint and chocolate finish with mocha and fig notes. Drink through 2017. Shaw-Ross International Importers.
- 1Understanding Chilean Carmenère