Being a wine aficionado, every year I very much look forward to November 24th - the Global Carménère Day.
Founded six years ago, this festival is not just a wine appreciation day that has been started by hardcore wine enthusiasts who use social media platforms for spreading the word. On November 24th we celebrate perhaps one of the most mysterious wines out there. Its unprecedented story is nothing but thrilling. But before we dig into more details about Carmenere, let me present a few introductory facts in order to get the ball rolling:
- Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, Carmenère is considered one of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, France.
- Originated in France, Carménère has become the signature grape of Chile where it has made itself at home.
- It is produced in wineries either as a single-variety wine or for blending with other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc.
- Carménère may exhibit dark fruit or red fruit character, so primary flavors vary from raspberry, cherry, and pomegranate to blackberry, black currant, and plum.
- Among herbal/vegetal flavors there are tobacco, jalapeño pepper, green pepper, black pepper, and bell pepper.
- Other flavors include semi-sweet chocolate, leather, vanilla, and liquorice root.
- Usually, Carménère is a dry, medium-bodied wine with low-to-medium acidity and silky, sublime tannins.
- It has an elevated alcohol level - up to 14-15% ABV (ABV stands for the amount of alcohol in a given volume of liquid).
- It is recommended to be served at a temperature between 15°C and 18°C (60–65°F) and it can be a perfect food pair with a variety of food from creamy cheeses like goat cheese and mozzarella to meat dishes, BBQs, and pasta.
Today, Carménère is believed to grow nowhere else but Chile. However, you will also find its vineyards in Friuli and the Veneto - the northeastern regions of Italy, China (especially the Shandong and Ningxia provinces), Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (California and Eastern Washington's Walla Walla Valley).
As for the country of its origin, where it is also known as Grande Vidure, a historic Bordeaux synonym, Carménè appears in almost nonexistent quantities being used only for blends by a few Bordeaux producers.
If I would be writing about any other wine, I would list here the other Carménè’s synonyms but with this unique wine everything is different, so I will reveal them a bit later.
Now, let’s take a closer look at our mysterious hero.
What is Carménère?
Carménère is one of the oldest noble European grape varietals used for blending purposes in all the great Bordeaux wines as well as for creating single varietal wine.
Carménère is a late-ripening grape which means that it needs more hot and sunny days than other grapes in order to attain full ripeness and flavor. Actually, it is the latest to ripen out of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties.
It is the deepest, darkest, purplest of all red grapes and its foliage turns a brilliant red in fall which makes it one and only in the wine world. This distinctiveness is responsible for the grape’s beautiful name. It derives from "carmin" - the French word for crimson.
The original spelling of the grape and wine is Carmenère but the latest trend suggests rendering it without the accents as just “Carmenere” or, if you are a real wine enthusiast, with two accents: Carménère. I use that version throughout the entire article.
If you wonder how to pronounce the word Carménère correctly, try saying kahr-meh-nehr in a lovely French manner and you will nail it.
This unique sun-loving grape is vulnerable to mildew, planting dwindling, and coulure (a failure of grapes to produce fruit after blossoming what happens as the result of metabolic reactions to weather conditions) what makes it ill-suited to the cool and damp climate of Bordeaux.
On the other hand, in more favorable climates where it can soak up the sunshine through summer and fall, Carménère gets all the chances to ripe to perfection. In such climates, wine made from such grapes can put to shame its Bordeaux counterparts.
A Brief History Of Carménère
It is thought that the ancient Romans were fond of the variety and planted Carménère in Bordeaux wine vineyards and prior to that it had earned a great reputation in Spain, mainly in the Iberia region.
The Romans planted Carménère in Bordeaux’s Medoc region, and for centuries it was one of the six grapes used for creating a red Bordeaux blend. But due to the weather conditions, growers had to pick Carménère grapes before they were ripe and, undoubtfully, didn’t realize how powerful this hard to grow and care of varietal was.
In the mid-1800s, a microscopic aphid named Phylloxera, which lives on and eats roots of grapes was unintentionally brought to Europe on vines from North America. New to the continent, Phylloxera quickly spread across countries wiping out entire vineyards.
Up to 90% of the vines in the Bordeaux region were destroyed and had to be uprooted to stop the deadly pest. Phylloxera changed the destiny of our hero.
Feeling very unhappy in the cool climate of the Bordeaux region, it was even more prone to the attack of aggressive aphids than other grape varieties. The local wine growers decided not to replant Carménère and replaced it with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc considering the variety to be too finicky and not worth it in the maritime climate. Soon after that, it was presumed effectively extinct.
Luckily for the grape itself and for all of us, some Bordeaux varieties, including Carmenère, arrived in Chile from Bordeaux around 1850 - a few years prior to the Phylloxera Plague, brought by noble Chilean families who wanted to recreate the style of wine they had in Europe. Since vines were not differentiated by variety, the mixed cuttings got planted all together in vineyards established for Bordeaux red or Bordeaux white.
Bordeaux grapes, harvested and vinified in bulk, had been dominating Chilean vineyards for many years. Slowly, winemakers began to pay more attention to their grapes and started to identify the varieties. When it happened, Carménère, due to some similarity in leaf and grape bunch shapes, was subsumed into the Merlot category.
What distinguishes Carménère from Merlot and other Bordeaux grapes, is a different time of blossoming and ripening, low fertility, more intense color of its grapes, and red foliage in falls.
But Chilean winemakers believed it was just different Merlot and named it Merlot Peumal, after the Peumo Valley, where the first cuttings were planted once. Other names that appeared later, were Chilean Merlot or Late Merlot.
When Chilean military dictatorship became a matter of the past and lots of investors decided to finance the Chilean wine industry in the 1990-s, the country got a good chance to start producing wines that could be worthy of great praise. By this time, winegrowers managed to separate grape varieties from one another and were open to the idea of producing quality single-variety wines for the international market. “Merlot Chileno” still was thought to be just Merlot and was blended with Merlot grapes in varietal Melot wines and sold under the same moniker.
That odd confusion lasted until the French ampelographer (an expert in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape) Jean-Michel Boursiquot visited Chile in November 1994 in order to host two conferences during a symposium. One of the expert’s students invited him to visit the Vina Carmen vineyards, where she used to work at that time. During the tour around Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other plots contributed to the vineyards, Boursiquot was offered to take a look at “a new plot of Merlot”. And that was a groundbreaking moment in the Chilean wine industry.
Right away, the French scientist could say that the vines were not Merlot or any other common grape variety, but only after examining the distinguished shaped plant’s flowers, he concluded, “this is Carmenere!”
The genetic analysis confirmed the rediscovery and in 1998, the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized Carmenere as a distinct variety.
A lot of plots were designated for the rediscovered grape. Surrounded by the concentrated attention of intrigued winemakers, Carménère finally could breathe again as it did many many centuries ago flourishing in Iberia.
Inspired by the results achieved by winegrowers, Rene Merino, the President of Wines of Chile, declared in 2010, “Carmenère will be Chile’s flagship variety!” which meant that once fully rejected and forgotten, was destined to become the symbolic red wine of the country.
However, even in the dry, sunny, and warm conditions of Chile, Carménère still has to reach a high level of ripeness. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to shine for its excellence. So, the question of the right terroir where the grapes can get enough sunlight during the maturation season is extremely important. The Chilean producers keep looking for the best plot locations which could provide optimal sun exposure.
Colchagua Valley – the icon of wine production in Chile, is currently the largest area and the main producer of Carménère in the country. Two other regions where top-quality Carménère is made are Cachapoal and Aconcagua.
As statistic shows, about 10% of all vineyard plantings in Chile are designated to Carménère. That is close to 10,000 hectares of grapes planted and those 10,000 hectares comprised 80% of the world’s plantings dedicated to the variety.
Surprisingly, Chile wasn’t the only country where Carménère found a new home. A similar situation happened in Italy which didn’t suffer from phylloxera pest. It is believed that Carménère appeared there in the second half of the 19th century and was hidden under the name of Black Bordeaux or Old Cabernet and, on top of that, had been often mistaken for a declining form of Cabernet Franc.
During the 1960s, two professors of ampelography, Antonio Calò, and Carmine Liuni, compared “Cabernet Franc” from the Veneto region with Cabernet Franc imported from France and concluded that French and Italian clones were probably two different varieties. More advanced chemical analysis performed between 1988 and 1991 by professors Calò, Di Stefano and Costacurta confirmed the suggestion. The last doubts were erased when Carménère was entered into the register of vine varieties (thanks to the Chilean discovery) and the professors could finally declare that Italian “Cabernet Franc” was nothing but real Carménère.
The most suitable place for the challenging variety was found in the province of Vicenza and in 2009 the very first Italian Carménère with the official label saying Inama Oratorio Di San Lorenzo DOC Colli Berici Carmenere Riserva appeared on the market opening a new chapter in the history of this wonderful grape.
Another country that became new Carménère’s home was China where it arrived in the late 19th Century under the intriguing name Cabernet Gernischt and where it goes sometimes now under the name of Shelongzhu. The wine is quite popular on the Chinese market, being promoted by China’s domestic producers like Changyu and Great Wall. But since the country doesn’t have a sufficient amount of Carménère vineyards, the export of Chilean wines is steadily growing.
Besides the mentioned Carménère’s pseudonyms include Merlot Peumal, Merlot Chileno, Late Merlot, Black Bordeaux, Old Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Gernischt, and Shelongzhu, there are a few more like Bouton Blanc, Cabernella, Cabernelle, Cabernet Carmenère, Carbonet, Carbouet, Carménègre, Caremenelle, Carménère, Carmeneyre, Bordo, Cabernet, Cabernet Grosso, and Uva Francesca.
As you can see, some names are just variations of the same word affected by differences in languages, and some indicate that there was a mistake caused by some sort of confusion.
Some winemakers from the Walla Walla Valley, Pacific Northwest and California (the United States), Australia, and New Zealand impressed by the successful approach of Chilean and Italian winemakers, decided to give Carménère a chance and started testing the grape at their vineyards. It’s interesting to see what their experiments lead to.
A few French winemakers have planted Carménère as well. Today, you can find it in Bordeaux as a part of the blends like in this Grand Cru Valandraud or as a single-variety wine, though the amount of its producers is presented in a tiny amount, including Chateau Le Geai Carmenere, Chateau Lapeyronie Carmenere, and Chateau Carmenere.
Carménère Aromas & Taste Profile
Like with any distinguished wine, it is hard to overestimate the importance of terroir on the characteristics of the final product. I have mentioned the word terroir above but assuming that some of my readers are new to the term, it makes sense to explain what terroir is.
This term derived from the French word for earth, “terre” and when we talk about terroirs regarding viniculture we mean that the wine’s properties are determined by various factors including climate, topography, soil type, and even microorganisms growing in, on, and around the vine plots.
Hard luck of Carménère shows that every grape needs its own terroir in order to flourish, otherwise it can just get abandoned and disappear. It will take many years until Chilean winemakers will be able to establish the most suitable terroirs for this unique variety but their first attempts are very promising.
Since Carménère is part of the notable Cabernet family, it shares its exclusive green pepper note from alkyl-methoxypyrazines (or just ‘pyrazine’) compounds that are found in all the classic Bordeaux varietals. Carménère and Cabernet Franc have the most pronounced pyrazines aromas, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Malbec at the very end. While green peppers are the most frequent aromas linked to pyrazines, others that might specify the compound’s presence are jalapeno, spicy or sweet herbs, olive, asparagus, snap pea, plant stems, or even just simple earthy dirt.
On the negative side, the strong presence of alkyl-methoxypyrazines can smell almost disgusting but on the good side, these powerful chemical compounds are capable of creating amazing flavors that add distinguished notes to the wines.
When Carménère grapes are harvested underripe, the aromas produced by pyrazines can be associated with the smell of rotten asparagus or mushy steamed peppers, so letting grapes achieve the perfect ripeness is vital. Optimal sun exposure helps to burn harsh tannins, while unpleasant pyrazines aromas are slowly converting into pleasant aromas of green pepper or jalapeño.
Therefore, if Carménère is harvested too early or cannot ripe because of the lack of sunshine, it exhibits strong bitter characteristics and unwanted flavors. That’s a reason it gets blended with Merlot or Cabernet so bitterness and aromas would be balanced out.
Wine made from well-ripened grapes is mellow, yet full and rich in body, with fine-grained, almost non-existing, tannins. The dark fruit hit you in the first, followed by a hint of spicy green pepper on the nose, complemented by peppercorn, blackberry, raspberry, and cherry aromas succeeded by even darker flavors of chocolate, leather, coffee, and tobacco. Oak agings bring indulging notes of liquorice root, smoke, and vanilla along with a creamy soft, velvet texture.
Drinking & Handling Carménère
In order to fully enjoy your wine, you should follow a few simple recommendations. First, make sure that you store and serve it at the right temperatures.
Heat is enemy number one for any wine. Temperatures higher than 21°C (70°F) will age your wine and if you store it at temperatures above 25°C (77°F) all aromas and flavors may just get flat. The ideal serving temperature is 13°C (55°F) but you are safe all the way up to 18°C (65°F).
Suggested serving temperature ranges between 15-18°C (60°F-65°F). If you just bought your wine and brought it from the store or got it delivered by postal services, chill it in the fridge for 10-15 minutes.
With its lower acidity levels, Carménère is typically not a wine that is created to spend years in a cellar so, you should pay attention to the vintage. If the wine is one or two years old, it needs some aeration.
After you uncork the bottle, transfer the wine gently and evenly into the decanter or a glass pitcher and leave it to breathe for 40-60 minutes. Aeration allows release the of gases (nitrogen or carbon dioxide), dissolved in young red wines, letting them “open” and display their character in full.
However, full-bodied premium-quality wines age well and can be consumed after five or ten years of cellaring. They do not need oxidation but may need decanting if there is any sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Usually, it happens to really aged wines but if you have a cool-looking crystal decanter at home, why not use it. Just pour your Carménère in very gently and slowly, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and fill the glasses.
And by the way, do not attempt to aerate wine for longer than an hour or do it in your refrigerator. Too much exposure to air can damage aromas and make your wine to smell like vinegar. Also, your refrigerator will dehumidify wine a bit what can affect aromas as well.
The right glass for Carménère should hold 12-14 fluid ounces (350 ml) and be bell-shaped but not every occasion demands a fancy stem, so you can use whatever glassware style you prefer - with a stem or stemless. Just do not fill it over one-third full - leave some room for the flavors.
Before drinking, swirl your glass for at least ten seconds and take a quick whiff. Then stick your nose into the wine glass for a deep inhale to receive the first impressions of the wine. After that take a small sip and let wine roll over your tongue trying to identify levels of tannins, acidity, sugar, and alcohol. Then try to determine tasing notes and move on to the finish.
Food Pairings For Carmenere
Carménère is outstandingly good with barbecued meats due to its dark notes that play nicely with the smoky flavors and goes perfectly with steaks, lamb ribs, and all kinds of sausages.
But it could also go very well with:
- Earthy Irish Stew;
- Indian Tandoori Chicken;
- Turkish kebabs,
- Moroccan Lamb Tangine;
- Italian Pizza, Salami, and cold sliced meats;
- German Beef Rouladen,
- Central Asian Pilav
- French Ratatouille or Cassoulet;
- Russian Pozharsky Cutlets;
- Spanish Chorizo or Botifarra;
- Braised Californian Short Ribs,
- Mexican Chile con Carne.
As you understand, this list could be as long as half of this article and it would probably be easier to make a list of foods that wouldn’t be complemented by Carménère like artichokes, blue cheese, brussels sprouts, chocolate, eggs, and sushi but instead I will tell you something different. Just take note that Carménère goes especially well with dishes that contain the following ingredients:
- Meats and Fish: lamb, beef, pork sausage, duck, chicken, turkey, and rabbit.
- Herbs and spices: rosemary, thyme, and oregano, garlic, fennel, curry powder, saffron, paprika, anise, and cumin.
- Fruits and vegetables: black and green olives, bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet potato, corn.
If you love cheese, you may embellish your platter with aged semi-hard cheeses, like cheddar or gouda. But if you are looking for an exquisite combination, you might consider rosemary crusted sheep’s milk cheese or a truffled brie.
Best Chilean Carmenere Wines
If you remember, I have mentioned above that Carménère was rediscovered by the French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot at Viña Carmen - Chile’s first winery, founded in 1850. The winery produces a wide range of premium-quality wines, including Carménère. Medium-bodied Viña Carmen’s Carménère shows intense aromas of dark plum, cherry, and mulberry, spiced up by ripe red pepper flavor and complemented by notes of spinach, jams, and chocolate. Barrel aging provides pleasant smokiness. The texture is soft and tannins are low.
Viña Santa Rita - the best winery to visit in Maipo Valley, was founded in 1880 and since then its owners have always been keen on implementing the most advanced techniques and technologies into the winemaking process. Today, ideal vineyards locations, implementation of terrier concept, a combination of traditional methods with the latest innovations allow the company to produce supreme quality wines bringing forth lots of international prizes and awards.
Pewën de Apalta is Santa Rita’s icon Carménère and, accordingly to the producers, a leader of its kind in Chile. Using not overripen grapes from the dry-farmed (unirrigated) vines that grow on poor granitic soils - the best kind of soils for this unique grape, on the south-facing moderate slope in the mid-section of the Apalta Valley hills, the winemakers manage to craft mature tense wine with distinguished herbal notes, accompanied by red fruits and spices and elegant crunchy acidity.
Viña San Pedro, founded in 1865, is one of the most important vineyards in Chile and one of the country’s most noteworthy wine exporters. In 2002, the owners opened a special winery with a focus on fine wines. Vineyards of the new winery are located in the Cachapoal Valley at the foot of the Andes Mountain Range. The perfect location of terroirs, sustainable winemaking, and successful adaptation of the most advanced techniques make it possible to create wines of impeccable quality.
‘Tierras Moradas’ - Viña San Pedro’s Carménère is made from grapes planted on a unique and beautiful parcel with uncommonly purple soils due to colluvial origin. Intensively red wine with beautiful violet hues, elegant and full-bodied ‘Tierras Moradas’ offers unforgettable aromas of black fruit, cloves, black pepper, tobacco, and cedar.
Founded at the foothills of the Andes in 1874, Viña Tarapaca has become one of the most historical and traditional Chilean wineries, as well as a benchmark for viticulture in South America. Viña Tarapaca’s is located in Isla de Maipo - the most traditional area for the production of fine wines in the country. Surrounded by the mountains, Viña Tarapaca’s vineyard is a place of origin of distinguished wines that exhibit unique and exceptional quality. Fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French and American oak barrels for 2-3 months, Viña Tarapaca’s Carménère demonstrates intriguing notes of red fruit intermingled with ripe black fruit, along with spicy notes and hints of toast.
The wines I have just talked about are really hard to find and the best way to experience them is to go to Chile on a wine tour and enjoy all these top-quality Carménères right on their wineries. Though it seems a bit early to talk about wine tours in 2020.
Anyway, online orders and international postal deliveries are still there so, you can go ahead and order yourself a bottle of good Carménère by following any of the links down below:
- 2016 Antiyal Carmenere Vinedo Escorial, Maipo Valley, Chile
- 2017 Montes Carmenere Purple Angel, Chile, Valle Central, Rapel, Colchagua Valley
- 2017 De Martino Carmenere Single Vineyard Alto De Piedras, Chile, Valle Central, Maipo
- 2017 Errazuriz Aconcagua Alto Carmenere
Q: What kind of wine is Carmenere?
A: Carménère is a red, dry, medium-to-full-bodied wine, that typically shows dark fruit flavors with spicy green pepper on the nose, complemented by peppercorn, blackberry, raspberry, and cherry aromas followed by darker flavors of chocolate, leather, coffee, and tobacco. Oak aging adds notes of smoke, clove, and vanilla. The good-quality wine usually exhibits a creamy soft, velvet texture on the palate and very low fine-grained tannins.
Q: Is Carmenere a dry wine?
A: Yes, Carménère is a red dry wine made from Carménère grapes that along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, considered as one of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, France.
Q: How do you pronounce Carmenere?
A: Just try saying kahr-meh-nehr with a French accent.