Carménère: The Chilean experiment

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | june 2016

In 1994, a French ampelographer (grape geneticist) Jean-Michel Boursiquot was inspecting a Viña Carmen Merlot vineyard in Chile when he recognized that the vineyard wasn't Merlot at all. It took a few minutes to reorganize his thoughts, but Boursiquot suspected that it was a long lost variety that had disappeared from the face of the earth in 1867 during the Phylloxera epidemic that wiped out the French Bordeaux vineyards. After sending samples to Montpellier University's School of Oenology, DNA analysis confirmed his guess that the vineyard was entirely made up of the lost varietal Carménère. Carménère had survived in South America because Phylloxera could not survive in the dry, rocky conditions of the Andes foothills. Sometime in the 1850s, cuttings of Carménère, along with Cabernet and Merlot, were taken by prosperous Chilean farmers from Bordeaux to the Santiago Valley in Chile in order to develop the wine industry, but in the process of transporting and planting the cuttings, Carménère got mixed in with Merlot and was assumed to be the same grape.

Carménère is an ancient European variety that dates back to the Roman Empire when the Romans controlled the Iberian Peninsula. At one time Carménère was referred to as Biturica, a wine that was generally praised as good wine in ancient Rome. The Bordeaux region was known by the name Biturica before its current appellation.

Carménère favors a long growing season in moderate to warm climates. During harvest time and the winter, the vine fares poorly if introduced to high levels of rain or irrigation water. This is particularly true in poor-soil plantings where the vine requires more water. Over-watering during this period accentuates the herbaceous and green pepper characteristics of the grape. The grape naturally develops high levels of sugar before the tannins achieve ripeness. If grown in too hot a climate the resulting wines have high alcohol levels and low acid. Carménère buds and flowers three to seven days later than Merlot and the yield is lower. The Carménère leaves turn to crimson before dropping in the fall. The difficulty in achieving ripeness and balance may have contributed to the decline and extinction of the variety in France.

The flavor of the grape when properly ripened is lush exhibiting cherry tones with aromas of coffee and chocolate. If the variety is harvested too early, aromas of green bell pepper can be off-putting. An herbaceous character made this a perfect character for a roasted leg of lamb. The wine also went well with the vegetables of Provence like grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers. The variety thrived in the dry long Chilean summers that were tempered by the cooling, oceanic influences of the Humboldt Current. Until the chance discovery of Carménère's true identity in 1994, the grape was mixed in with Merlot and Cabernet disguising its varietal character.

The Chileans have had 22 years to experiment with the newly discovered Carménère and it is interesting to see what they have been doing. Chile has a close connection with the winemaking community in California. There are many Napa wine makers who have interests in Chile as well as owning properties there, so it is not surprising that the first steps in utilizing Carménère were to mimic the Californians and go for heavy extraction, high alcohol wines by letting Carménère achieve full physiological ripeness. Winemaker for Chilean vineyard De Martino Marcelo Retamal during a vertical tasting of the last twenty vintages remarked that prior to the 2010 vintage “I was in a dark place in my winemaking" veering into super–ripe powerhouse wines with no balance between sweetness and acidity. Retamal further added that these “twenty years illustrate the search for our identity." More than a tasting of Carménère, this represents the evolution of the Chilean wine industry, “It's a process; we've been learning. Now we see the right way to go."

Like any course of action in today's world of social media and instantaneous communication, the Carménère grape evokes reaction from many fronts. Some love it; some hate it; others remain unmoved. There are winemakers who consider Carménère at best a bit player, good for blending only; others argue that it can stand alone as a terroir-specific, truly noble variety like Cabernet and Merlot; others maintain that it can do both. While this is a fascinating work in progress, there are some very good examples in the marketplace right now. The three wines I've selected are examples of the more restrained styles that feature lower alcohols, more acidity that gives the wine more freshness and the ability to age and a slight vegetal note that makes these wines very food friendly.

All of the grapes for these three wines were grown in the Colchagua Valley which has a Mediterranean climate. The valley runs north to south on permeable granitic soils with plentiful water from the Andes mountains snow melt. The heat of the valley is moderated by the oceanic breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The Rothschild's of Lafite Rothschild selected this valley for their vineyard and Los Vascos winery, which gives one an indication of how good the location is.

The first wine is the 2013 Ventisquero Reserva Carménère, 13.5 percent alcohol and $11 at Woodman's. This wine is a blend of 85 percent Carménère and 15 percent Syrah. The 2013 vintage was the coolest in the last twenty years. As a result the grapes ripened more slowly than in previous years, which boosted aromas and freshness. The lack of rain during the ripening period resulted in grapes of outstanding quality. The grapes were given a pre-fermentation low temperature maceration to bring out color and aroma. The must (a mixture of grapes and juice) was then fermented in stainless-steel tanks. Ventisquero says that this wine will cellar for at least seven years.

This wine is a deep cherry red with maroon hues at the edges. The aroma is intense and inviting with fresh black and red fruits. Smells of blueberries, blackberries currants and cherries dominate. There are spicy, earthy notes that blend with hints of chocolate and vanilla. This is a well-balanced wine with velvet tannins and a clean finish. This is one that I would buy for the cellar and drink over the next three years.

The 2014 MontGras Carménère, 14 percent alcohol and $9.50 at Woodman's is 100 percent Carménère. The grapes were harvested between May 10th and the 15th, which is very late for this region. These grapes were macerated with 17 days of skin contact. The wine had 70 percent oak contact; 80 percent in French oak, 20 percent in American oak and 25 percent of the oak was new for six months. This wine will also age well.

A deep ruby red color shows complex aromas of fresh ripe currant and blackberries with spice notes and subtle touches of vanilla and mocha. The core of ripe blackberry, plums and spice is nicely balanced ending with a long complex finish. Foods matching this wine would include stews, pasta, roast chicken and even fatty fish like tuna.

Casa Silva 2013 Reserva Carménère, $12 at Woodman's is 13.5 percent alcohol. This wine is also 100 percent Carménère. The grapes were hand harvested between March 22nd and April 23rd then hand sorted and destemmed at the winery. Pre-fermentation maceration of eight days was followed by 14-day fermentation, the malolactic fermentation of the free run juice. The wine was then aged for six months in 60 percent French oak and 40 percent in stainless steel.

This is an intense wine with bright ruby red color and aromas of black cherries and plums with hints of spice. The sweet tannins match well with the black fruit flavors and balanced acidity. This wine will go well with steak, fajitas, kebobs and souvlaki. Pasta with sauce Bolognese is also a great match.

Now that the gen-x Chilean vintners have found their way out of the testing phase we may have balanced wines until the millennials move out of their parent's basement and decide that they need to tweak the formula for success.

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