As I penned this post, I asked myself several times why it has taken me so long to write about the amazing Carmenère wines of Chile. Such versatile wines that are laden with luscious, sweet blackberry and plum fruits interwoven with layers of licorice, pepper and herbal notes.
All About Chile's Carmenère Wines
While Carmenère is Chile's signature grape variety, its origins actually lie in Bordeaux, France, where it fell out of favor because it was very susceptible to the vineyard disease 'coulure', which causes poor fruit set resulting in significantly lower yields.
Cuttings were brought to Chile from France during the 19th century. For a long while, Carmenère in Chile was believed to be Merlot, or more precisely, a clone of Merlot (probably because cuttings of both were brought over and planted as field blends, rather than separately). Soon no-one really knew which was which.
The big problem with these poorly understood field blends was that Merlot ripened much earlier than Carmenère. So if you picked when the Merlot was ripe, the Carmenère grapes were still 'green' and if you waited for the Carmenère to ripen, then the Merlot became over-ripe and jammy.
In 1997 the confusion was cleared up when noted French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot was brought to Chile and recognized Carmenère for what it was. This identification was then confirmed through DNA profiling. Now producers could separate out Carmenère and work on learning how to better cultivate and fully ripen the grape, which is a very late ripening variety. It needs a long slow growing season and is also quite particular about the soils in which it grows — for example, disliking soils that retain too much water, as these can accentuate the green bell pepper character in the wine.
Today many styles of Carmenère are made in Chile, from the more simple, easy drinking juicy wines, to more complex, concentrated and lavishly oaked wines. And as well as 100% varietal wines, many producers blend Carmenère with everything from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Carignan etc.
Carmenère Wines to Try
While I have enjoyed Carmenère wines for many years, last November I had the opportunity to participate in an online bloggers' tasting of Carmenère, where we tasted through a rich line-up of wines, reinforcing my love of the grape and the fine wines it can produce in Chile. Carmenère wines are also very versatile at the table. Robust enough for winter dishes, their fresh juicy fruit also works really well with lighter meat and vegetable dishes for spring and summer.
These are the wines that I tasted:
• 2007 Santa Carolina Reserva Carmenère, Rapel Valley, $10 – Very juicy, with plummy black fruit flavors, sweet toffee and pepper notes. Quite oaky with soft tannins but very well structured for the price.
• 2007 Odfjell Armador Carmenère, Central Valley (mix of Colchagua Valley and Maipo Valley fruit), $13 – Absolutely packed with ripe juicy blackcurrant and blackberry flavors. Oak subtle (toast, spice notes) and well integrated. Attractive smoky note on the finish.
• 2007 Viu Manent Carmenère Reserva, Colchagua Valley, $14 – Another juicy wine with blackberry, raspberry and plummy flavors, with hints of coffee, caramel and toffee. Soft tannins and very smooth texture.
• 2007 Cono Sur Visión Carmenère, Colchagua Valley, $15 – Made from 85% Carmenère with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the blend – Here the Syrah adds a lovely lift to the aromas and with the Cabernet Sauvignon, gives firmer tannins. Flavors of juicy black fruit, cherry cola with lovely smoky, leathery notes on the finish. One of my favorites.
• 2008 Viña La Rosa La Capitana Carmenère, Barrel Reserve, Colchagua Valley, $18 – Full-bodied and more powerful than the earlier wines. Rich, extracted with concentrated sweet red and black fruit and lavish oak. Suave and velvety across the palate, but not my favorite of the line up.
• 2007 Ventisquero Grey Carmenère, Maipo Valley, $25 – Packed with really vibrant ripe fruit that can match the lavish oak. Juicy and refreshing, yet has firm tannins and great structure. Attractive herbal and minty notes. Another of my favorites.
• 2007 Terra Andina Altos Carmenère-Carignan, Central Valley, $18.99. Made from 70% Carmenère and 30% Carignan. Much more dense ripe fruit, but very well balanced with layers of blackberry, raspberry and plummy fruit, and notes of mocha and bittersweet chocolate.
• 2004 Carmen Wine Maker's Reserve Red, Maipo Valley, $44 – A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carmenère and 25% Petit Sirah. Expensive but a lovely treat. Elegant, firm structure and refreshing acidity. Complex layers of ripe black fruit, plums, licorice, black-pepper and spice. Oak obvious, but well-integrated and in balance.
• 2006 Purple Angel by Montes, Colchagua Valley, $50 - A blend of 92% Carmenère and 8% Petit Verdot. WHile this was not in the tasting line up, it is a wine that I have enjoyed many times and an excellent example of Carmenère. Quite concentrated, yet retains a vibrant core of juicy fruit. Ample, yet smooth tannins and bright flavors of black cherry, raspberry, coffee, chocolate and lovely lingering spice on the finish. Expensive but great as a special treat or gift.
This is but a short list of the many great Carmenère wines that you can find in most wine stores today.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Courtesy of Wines of Chile and individual wineries mentioned.)