Back from extinction in Chile’s Central Valley, Carménère
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Like out of a Sci-fi story, Carménère came back to life. The recently recognized Carménère turned 21 last year. Happy belated 21st birthday, you delicious red wine variety you.
If you prefer to watch an educational video about Carménère, check out our YouTube channel:
The extinction of Carménère
Carménère, like its fellow South American gems Malbec and Tannat, came from France. It is one of the original Bordeaux varietals. In the appellations of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, which are both located in Bordeaux, it was a popular blending grape.
Once Phylloxera destroyed Bordeaux in 1869, vineyards didn’t make much of an effort to replant Carménère. The French vineyard owners had their reasons. First, Carménère is not an easy grape to grow. Other grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are much less work. Second, other Bordeaux varieties carried a higher price tag. And third, it didn't graft to American stock well, which is the solution to making vines phylloxera-proof. By the mid 1900s, the world considered Carménère extinct … until 1994.
But more about that later.
Carménère is a half sibling of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They all share the same amazing parent, Cabernet Franc, also a Bordeaux varietal. But Carménère is more dope than those two since it’s great-great-grandparent on the other side is also Cabernet Franc. That explains why Carménère and Cabernet France have many similarities.
Chile brings Carménère back from the dead
The Spanish planted the fist vineyards in Chile the 16th century. At that time, Pais was the grape of choice.
After Chile gained its independence in 1810, the country grew an affinity for all things French, especially wine. Mining brought money into Chile and with that brought a taste for fine wine. By the mid 1800s, there was lavish estates around Santiago growing enough wine to warrant the nickname, the Bordeaux of South America.
In the mid 1800s, South American immigrants brought what they thought was Merlot across the ocean to be planted in Chile. Over time, they realized some of their Merlot vines ripened quicker than others. And those early ripening vines sprouted leaves that changed colors, which is not normal for Merlot.
In 1994, French ampelographer (botanist focused on grapes), Jean-Michel Boursiquot, took notice of these differences in the purported Merlot vines. He determined half of Chilean Merlot vines were actually the long lost French Carménère.
In 1998, the Chilean government finally recognized Carménère as a unique variety, which allowed the grape to appear on wine labels again. Now, Carménère is one of the most important grapes grown in Chile.
Chilean Carménère is one of the easier red varietals to identify. There are distinct red fruit and pepper characteristics. Common flavors you will find include raspberry, plum, bitter chocolate, and all types of pepper. It contains a high amount of pyrazines, which are aromatic compounds that cause herbaceous notes like green bell pepper, black pepper, and eucalyptus.
Generally, Carménère is made in a singular style. That's not a negative take on Carménère. Rather, having a singular style helps the consumer confidently grab a bottle at his/her price point. This singular style showcases body and tannin at the medium to medium-high levels. Acidity is usually medium-high and alcohol runs high (14-15% ABV). Despite having a singular style, quality varies depending on price point. While you can find well made versions under $20, there are plenty high quality Carménères under $50 retail.
Chilean law permits Carménère to include up to 15% of other grapes blended and still be labeled Carménère. And most producers usually blend within that range. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Verdot are often used to add more depth and soften the herbaceous notes. You can tell another grape has been blended in because it adds black fruit that Carménère would not otherwise have.
Some Carménère aficionados believe that blended Carménère are better than single varietal versions. But don't let that sway you away from single varietal versions. In our taste testing, John preferred the 100% Carménère. I didn't. What does he know, right?
Carménère is extremely food friendly with its medium-plus acid and herbaceous flavors. The acid allows for both high acid and rich creamy sauces. Carménère goes great with anything from chimichurri to cheese. The pepper flavor enhances all types of meat, especially lamb, as well as complementing herbs and vegetables.
Carménère ripens very slowly and requires a long summer to mature to its full potential. It produces small bunches of very dark grapes. Its leaves turn red and orange as fall hits. How beautiful is this:
Reading the label
Chile uses the D.O. (Denomination of Origin) classification system to define its many regions, sub-regions, zones, and areas. When wine labels include a D.O. and a varietal, the wine must contain at least 85% of that particular grape.
In addition to the D.O., some Chilean producers further classify their wine by specifying the type of terrain. Bottles stating Costa (coastal), Entre Cordilleras (mid-mountain range), or Andes after the D.O. reflect the vineyards location within the entire range of Chile's viticulture regions. These denominations are complementary to the D.O. system and not mandatory. So don't expect to see them on every bottle. Still, when provided, this information is meant to inform the consumer about the grape growing conditions. For instance, grapes grown in the Andes are going to have higher elevation, mountain air, and sedimentary soil.
The term Estate-bottled means both the winery and their vineyards are located within the same D.O.
Chileans love to use many other terms like Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Superior. However, there is no legal standard around these terms, and wineries have free reign to use them as they see fit.
Central Valley is an enormous wine region—extending 250 miles north to south along the very thin country. The Central Valley lies in the center of country nestled between the Andes mountains and coastal mountains along the ocean. It is Chile’s original wine making region given its perfect wine-growing climate.
Central Valley accounts for 83% of all Chilean wine production, and it is responsible for the vast majority of Chile’s Carménère.
Central Valley includes 4 sub-valleys: Maipo, Rapel, Curico, and Maule.
Maipo is the original of the original. It is right outside Santiago and receives plenty of love from both tourists and the locals. Maipo is home to some of the larger players you might encounter.
Maipo Valley isn't a one-trick pony—it can do more than great red wine. Quality white wine is also produced here, including Chardonnay. In the US, you should be able to find great Maipo wines at all price ranges.
When labels include the term Alto to accompany Maipo (e.g., Alto Maipo), the grapes were grown at an elevation of over 1300 feet. Alto Maipo is home to some of Chile’s most prized wines. Alto Maipo is also known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, which often showcases graphite notes and profound structure.
Colchagua is a region within the Raphel Valley, sitting at its most southern point. It maintains a wine-friendly temperate Mediterranean climate.
As the second largest wine region, Colchagua's terroir is varied. On the lower side, the soil is a perfect mix of clay and silt loams. As you head up in the mountains, you’ll find granite, which adds minerality to Carménères wines.
Colchagua has gained a great deal of recognition since the late 90s for amazing red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are, respectively, the first and second most produced varietals in Colchagua. However, Carménère, coming in third in production, is the real star of the show. Colchagua accounts for half the Carménère grapes from Chile.
Wine Tasting Time!
Casa Silva Carménère, Los Lingues Vineyard, 100% Carménère, Valle de Colchagua Andes, 2018, $19
This wine exploded with intense flavors of blackberry jam and eucalyptus. There was a nose of green bell pepper, lavender, and strawberry. John and I tasted black pepper, jalapeno, asparagus, wet wool, and black plum. There is medium plus acid with medium plus cedary tannin. The high alcohol at 14.5% ABV adds to the medium plus body. There was a medium raisiny finish coming in at 22 seconds.
Perez Cruz Estate Bottled Carménère, 93% Carménère, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, Valle del Maipo Andes 2017, $24
This wine blew our minds with its complexity of flavors. We smelled blackberry, red plum, asparagus, cinnamon, and coffee. We tasted licorice, blueberry, burnt squash skin, hay, fig, earth, tar, charred wood, leather, nutmeg, and prune. We enjoyed the medium plus acid paired with the medium plus vegetal tannins. This 14% ABV wine had medium body. This Carménère wine had a medium finish coming in at 20 seconds.
Chile also does great Pinot Noirs further north in the Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys. To learn more, please checkout our post: John's own personal wine regions.
For as bold and flavorful as Chilean Carménère is, the price point is amazing. For all you "I only drink Napa Cabs" people, it’s time you open your horizons and give Carménère a chance. Life finds a way!
Your clever girl,