​Carmenére and Pyrazines; It's in the Genes

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | july 2018

When I wrote about Chile's experiment with the long lost and misidentified Carmenére grape last year I didn't realize that the experimentation was not over but has continued in a different direction. The new information regarding Carmenére makes for a compelling story that is worth a second look.

For younger readers of this column, you may be surprised to know that way back in the early 1990s there was a strong demand worldwide for Merlot. The demand was prompted in part by a CBS “60 Minutes" report by Morley Safer titled “The French Paradox." The gist of the story was that drinking red wine protected the French people from the effects of eating fatty foods like foie gras (fatty duck liver), red meat, butter and cream. The story led to surging demand for Merlot and it became a matter of routine for customers to sidle up to a bar and order a glass of Merlot instead of a martini. The wine industry was in a bind; there was more demand for Merlot than there was supply. The solution was to head south to the Chilean vintners and the rapidly growing wine industry there. This demand-supply imbalance was the impetus that led to the rediscovery of Carmenére.

It may be hard to find, but there is, in fact, a monument in the middle of the Maipo Valley estate that belongs to the Santa Rita and Carmen wineries. It is a concrete monolith at the foot of the Andes Mountains with a plaque that explains that it was here, in 1994 that the French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered that grapes, previously vinified as Merlot, were in fact Carmenére. The Carmen Vineyard had hired Mr. Boursiquot to verify the grapes as a requirement to sell them to a California vintner. These Merlot grapes were unusual because they ripened later than the early ripening Merlot. The leaves also turned a beautiful crimson color before dropping in the fall. If harvested too early the wines exhibit aromas of green bell pepper, which indicated the presence of pyrazines. But what really confirmed the existence of Carmenére was the DNA analysis that was done by Mr. Boursiquot.

Once the grape variety had been properly identified, you'd think that the Chilean vintners would be anxious to promote the new variety, but like a young child that had captured its first butterfly; they tore the wings off. The brain trust in the marketing department at Carmen Vineyards decided that it would be confusing to label it as Carmenére because of the similarity to the name of the winery so they used a synonym that had been used in the 18thcentury in Bordeaux, Grande Vidure. Then they blended it with Cabernet Sauvignon and called it Cabernet-Grand Vidure Reserva. Now completely disguised the grape languished for two years before it was bottled as a varietal. The creative destruction wasn't over though. In the late 1990s, around the world, markets, reacting like lemmings, began to favor fuller riper, higher alcohol reds. Carmenére producers in Chile fell right in line and harvested their Carmenére later which led to complete loss of its varietal character and produced blowzy, sweet red wines more suited to be drunk with chocolate cake than a good rare steak.

Marcelo Retamal at Santa Inés Winery finally ended the madness by recognizing that pyrazines in the Carmenére grape were what made the varietal interesting and age-worthy. He bottled it as 100 percent Carmenére. The grapes were grown in the Alto de Piedras; an estate parcel in the Maipo Valley that today produces top Carmenére. Senor Retamal preferred the grapes grown on the sandier soils near the Maipo River which emphasized the green vegetal flavors that were the result of the DNA makeup of Carmenére. Pyrazine is a chemical compound that is found in green bell peppers, asparagus and peas. In white wines like Sauvignon Blanc it is an asset but when overdone in red wines it can give the wine a taste of raw vegetation.Retamal had come to grips with the fact that he didn't like the taste of his own wines (quite a brave feat of self-reflection). In 2011, seventeen years after the discovery of the variety, he and his team decided to make a radical change. The genesis of that decision was his preference for red wines that were not overly oaked or allowed to achieve hyper ripeness. He wanted a wine that didn't hide the character of the place where it was grown. In a presentation to the press in Santiago, he and his team announced that they would no longer do anything that they found that might standardize the flavors in the wine, such as harvesting very late or using excessive new wood in the aging process. They set a goal to articulate the rich terroir diversity and varied expressions of Chile.

Retamal remembered the first two vintages (1995, 96) of Santa Inés Carmenére which balanced the grape's vegetal side with its red fruit. In those early vintages the green notes added complexity rather than dominating the flavor.

“What we did with Alto de Piedras was to harvest early and age it in large concrete foudres." The concentration of the 1996 was 12.5 percent alcohol. The latest release from the 2015 season in Maipo is barely a half percent higher. Retamal is not alone in the new direction. There is suddenly a trend toward earlier harvests and fresher red wines. Sebastian Labbé at Santa Rita is now making two Carmenére's that present their origins unadorned. For Labbé, the key to growing good Carmenére is poor soils and limited water.

“Our theory is that the production of pyrazines stops when the vegetative growth stops. If there is a lot of water (think irrigation) this growth never stops."

Rodrigo Zamorano from the Caliterra winery is another winemaker that is embracing the value of pyrazines.

“I lost my fear of pyrazines simply because I got tired of avoiding them. And I also started appreciating those less ambitious wines (higher alcohol) which were harvested earlier and were much fresher and easier to drink."

Zamorano has also discovered that Carmenére grown in lower altitude vineyards that have higher clay content are round and ripe; whereas grapes grown on higher elevation parcels where clay is mixed with decomposing granite the wines are more angular or sharper and delineated. The pyrazines in these higher elevation grapes tend to meld with the fruit giving the wine some herbal accents that go well with food. I personally like that herbal aspect because it matches the foods I like to eat like an herb-infused roast leg of lamb or a pork shoulder braised with fennel and peppers. I would imagine that properly made Carmenére would match well with stuffed peppers too. In any case it's worth looking for the newer vintages of this once forgotten grape.

Root 1 Carmenére 2014 from the Colchagua Valley is 13.5 percent alcohol $7.99 at Woodman's. This particular wine is 85 percent Carmenére and 15 percent Syrah. Root 1 is a brand owned by Viña Ventisquero. The vines are ungrafted which supposedly improves varietal flavor. The grapes are grown on steep rocky slopes that temper the available water and keep the vines cooler. This wine has an intense violet color with plum and cherry flavors and a hint of smoke. The website recommends it with eggplant parmesan or vegetable lasagna which infers that the vegetative side is present. This is a real bargain for 8 bucks!

The Chilensis 2015 Reserva 14 percent alcohol (also $7.99 at Woodman's) the wine is 98 percent Carmenére, 1 percent Cabernet and Merlot. The grapes were grown in the Maule Valley which is about 100 miles south of Colchagua Valley. This wine was rated 90 points by the Beverage Tasting Institute. The wine is a deep purple color with smoky aromas of bacon. The taste is fresh and vibrant with flavors of blistered serrano peppers peach skin and shallot. The cherry and plum flavors are crisp with notes of dried herbs. This is another great bargain that would go well with a grilled rib eye steak.

The last wine is from one of my favorite producers. The Casa Silva 2014 Carmenére is 14 percent alcohol and $11.99 at Woodman's. It is also from the Colchagua Valley. The grapes were grown at 1,000-foot elevations that again deprive the vines of water intensifying flavors and minimizing pyrazines. The Silva family has been growing grapes since 1892 and their cellar is the oldest in the valley. The wine is chock full of plums and cherries but with a nice herbal essence that would pair well with a spicy ratatouille.

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