The Accidental Wine
Grown in only a few of the world’s wine regions, dark, idiosyncratic Carmenère has found a comfortable home in Chile’s warm valleys.
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.”
92 Concha y Toro 2010 Terrunyo Block 27 Entre Cordilleras (Peumo). Mossy, lightly herbal aromas of blackberry and marzipan are attractive. This is rich and racy in the mouth, with vanilla, tobacco, plum and berry flavors that finish long and ride elegantly on a beam of slightly sharp acidity. Drink this fine Carmenère through 2016. Excelsior Wines.
abv: 14.5% Price: $50
92 Santa Carolina 2009 Herencia (Peumo). Keeping with past performances, Herencia is again one of Chile’s best Carmenères. This is bold, toasty and ripe on the nose, with tobacco and vanilla nuances. The palate is huge but in shape, while toasty, chocolaty flavors, along with herbal plum and berry notes, end chewy and deep. Drink through 2016. Carolina Wine Brands USA.
abv: 15% Price: $90
92 Viu Manent 2010 El Incidente (Colchagua Valley). Lofty from the start, this extracted Carmenère pumps out toasty, herbal aromas of smoked meat, leather and black fruits. The palate feels flush and thick, while flavors of baked blackberry, herbs, spice, mint and pepper finish with a warm wave of mocha and chewy tannins. Drink through 2017. Baystate Wine & Spirits.
abv: 14.5% Price: $50
91 Montes 2010 Alpha (Colchagua Valley). Everything about this mid-tier Carmenère seems right. The nose deals black-fruit aromas along with black olive, licorice and herbal notes. The mouth is round, friendly and textured, with a mix of roasted plum, berry, herb, spice, olive and tomato flavors. On the finish, it’s balanced. Drink now–2016. TGIC Importers.
abv: 14.5% Price: $25
91 San Pedro 2010 Tierras Moradas (Maule Valley). Plum, berry, licorice and balsamic aromas are earthy and classy. This feels chunky and heavy, but not ponderous. Flavors of prune, rooty spices, mint and chocolate finish with mocha and fig notes. Enjoy this ripe, full-bodied wine anytime through 2017. Shaw-Ross International Importers.
abv: 14% Price: $45
91 Santa Rita 2008 Pehuén (Apalta). With cool, herbal aromas of cola, pine, juniper, fine oak and savory berry fruits, this is a fine Carmenère. The palate is full, deep and still fresh after several years in the bottle. Flavors of stewed cherry, baked plum and cassis come with no shortage of savory support, while the finish is saucy in taste, with raciness, gravitas and length. Drink through 2018. Palm Bay International.
abv: 14.5% Price: $70
90 Errazuriz 2010 Kai (Aconcagua Valley). This absurdly priced Carmenère is always one of Chile’s best, and this vintage is just fine, with cherry, cassis, graphite, herb and eucalyptus-like green aromas. The palate is chunky and round in feel, with solid acidity and plump, herbal flavors of berry fruits, olive and spice. But what justifies a $235 price tag? You can be the judge. Vintus LLC.
abv: 14.5% Price: $235
90 Lapostolle 2010 Cuvée Alexandre Apalta Vineyard (Colchagua Valley). Opaque in color and superrich on the nose, it has dominant aromas of earth, leather, baked fruit and spice. It feels lush and chunky, maybe a touch soft, with earthy, naturally herbal flavors of dark fruit, plum and chocolate. The finish is smooth and warming. Terlato Wines International.
abv: 14.3% Price: $25
90 Siegel 2012 Single Vineyard (Colchagua Valley). Minty plum and berry aromas are herbal but ripe, with a note of chocolate and black tea. This is lush and layered, with top-end mouthfeel and herbal, floral flavors of berry fruits and plum. A smooth, herbal tasting finish is the finale to a well-made, flavorful wine. Kysela Père et Fils.
abv: 13.5% Price: $22
90 Viña Bisquertt 2010 Ecos de Rulo Single Vineyard (Colchagua Valley). Although this smells a bit flat and earthy, cool, herbal berry aromas as well as coffee and spice make this inviting and easy to like. A flush, jammy palate maintains its pulse, while a mix of spicy black fruits, licorice, espresso and chocolate flavors end long and lightly herbal. Drink this cuddly wine sooner rather than later. Prestige Wine Group.
abv: 14% Price: $20
89 Undurraga 2012 Sibaris Reserva Especial (Colchagua Valley). Spicy, earthy cherry and cassis aromas are true to the variety. This is juicy, bright and substantive in feel, with red berry, oak spice and herbal flavors. A minty, chocolaty finish full of herbs and spices provides for a good ending. Testa Wines Of The World.
abv: 14.5% Price: $17
85 Santa Alicia 2012 Reserva (Maipo Valley). Hard spice and minty green aromas heavily shadow the wine’s fruit character. In the mouth, it’s mildly creamy feeling, while the flavors suggest toast, herbs, chocolate and spicy berry fruit. This is a basic but honest representation of Carmenère. Halby Marketing. Best Buy.
abv: 14% Price: $10
Once fairly common in Bordeaux but not -replanted there after Europe’s 19th-century phylloxera plague because of its propensity for uneven ripening, Carmenère celebrates its 20th birthday as a named entity in Chilean wine this year.
Following Carmenère’s unexpected discovery in Chile, only a few wineries wanted anything to do with the grape. Most felt the name was unheard of outside hardcore wine and agronomy communities (they were correct).
They were also a bit chapped to have “lost” all their Merlot, a variety that reached its apex in popularity during the 1990s.
Marcelo Retamal was a rookie winemaker at De Martino in the mid ’90s when he received management’s go-ahead to bottle Chile’s first varietally labeled Carmenère, the 1996 Santa Ines.
“The vineyard had been planted in 1992 as Merlot, but we harvested it that year as Carmenère,” Retamal says.
Tesco, the large U.K.-based supermarket chain, purchased the entire production of that vintage. But the Chilean government, which hadn’t updated its list of approved varieties, blocked the shipment.
“They told us we couldn’t sell a wine that didn’t exist,” says Retamal.
Shortly thereafter, Carmenère was entered into the books as a permitted variety.
Alongside Retamal, I tasted this groundbreaking wine in December, and it was awful. It was dirty, slightly oxidized, leathery and, as Retamal himself said, “intomable,” which means “undrinkable” in Spanish.
We then tasted another 10 or so vintages of De Martino Carmenère, noting that the wine went from rustic early on, to dark, extracted and overly tannic in the early 2000s, to a style today that emphasizes lower alcohol levels and more freshness.
In general, such a style doesn’t fit what Carmenère inherently wants to be: big, muscular and chunky, with alcohol levels of at least 14.5%. But it’s a style that’s attainable, as evidenced by other modern Carmenères that do the category proud.
Alvaro Espinoza, a contemporary of Retamal who bottled Carmenère under the varietal name Grande Vidure (a French synonym for Carmenère) for Viña Carmen in the 1990s, now produces a single-site Carmenère in Alto Maipo under his Antiyal label.
It’s a smooth, natural, full-flavored wine with just a touch of sulfites and tartaric acid added for freshness. The wine sees no oak and is fermented in an egg-shaped cement tank.
“In 1994, when I made the Grande Vidure for Carmen, I was told by the big guys to shut up,” says Espinoza. “‘You’re hurting the reputation of Chilean Merlot,’ I was told. My feeling was, if people have liked our Merlot when it was really Carmenère, let’s make Carmenère better and promote it.”
Today’s Chilean Carmenère is infinitely better than the early wines made by the likes of Retamal and Espinoza. It’s also one of Chile’s most food-friendly red wines.
During my recent visit, I met with Andrés Caballero of Santa Carolina, whose Reserva de Familia and Herencia Carmenères regularly rate 90 points and above. We tasted these wines and a number of single-vineyard Carmenères from various spots throughout Chile.
Then we tried the wines with a table full of Indian foods—samosas, curried chicken, tamarind sauce, etc. The combinations were superb, the inherent spice and sauciness in the wines playing perfectly off mild spice flavors.
“Cabernet Sauvignon has high acidity and hard tannins; it needs meat,” says Caballero.
“But with Middle Eastern and Indian food, even some Asian foods like ramen or beef in black pepper sauce, Carmenère is a great pairing,” says Caballero. “The tannins and acidity don’t clash with the spices. It’s one of the best food-and-wine pairings we have.”
After a week of trying more than 50 Chilean Carmenères, on top of years spent evaluating Chilean Carmenère, I concur. Carmenère definitely isn’t for everyone, but its good qualities—richness, spicy notes, smooth tannins and compatibility with food—make it well worth a try.
- 1These 12 examples of Carmenère show that the variety’s future is bright.
- 2Carmenère’s History and Pioneers
- 3Carmenère at the Table