Average American consumers have shown a definite increase in their willingness to explore new wines and broaden their taste experiences over the past few years. While Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and White Zinfandel remain the mainstays of U.S. wine consumption, this trend has fueled measurable spikes in recent years in two other varietals. These are Pinot Noir (due in some part to the movie “Sideways”) and Malbec (from Argentina in particular). Argentinean Malbecs were the “hot” new wines to try in 2009 and 2010 and most retail establishments increased both their regular shelf inventory as well as their promotional offerings of these wines. Another varietal that has been slowly rising in popularity for the past few years that has a potential to become the next big South American wine for average consumers to explore is Carmenere. Today, The Wine Guy would like to cover the basics about this almost uniquely Chilean wine.
Carmenere is believed to have originated in France where it was once commonly utilized as one of the blending grapes in Bordeaux. Producers there prized Carmenere for its rich depth of color, however it was not ideally suited to the climate. Carmenere requires more than average sun and heat to ripen, is susceptible to cloture (poor setting of fruit) and can often yield a very herbal and vegetative wine. Following the phyloxera epidemic of the late 1800’s and a subsequent hard freeze, many producers abandoned the varietal and as a consequence, it is almost absent from French soil. The usage of Grand Vidure (what the varietal was better known as in the Bordeaux region) is still permitted today under the governing laws of Bordeaux but less than six chateaus still produce a few acres of the grape and blend it into their wine.
The 1800’s were also a time when many Europeans turned to South America for their opportunity to start their own wineries. Most took rootstock with them and that marks the beginnings of Carmenere in Chile. The bright Andes sun in the high valleys was much more suitable to cultivation than the damp often-chilly climes of semi-coastal Bordeaux and the vines came to be the dominant varietal in Chile. However, the plant and the grapes were outwardly highly similar in appearance to Merlot (a mainstay grape in Bordeaux) and many of the Chilean winemakers assumed that was the grape and wine they were producing. Many of the original vineyards planted by European immigrants were planted with a side by side mixture of both Merlot and Carmenere vines. Consequently, when Chilean wines first began to be imported, their greatest amount of offerings to U.S. consumers were labeled Merlot, a popular varietal for the U.S. Not being the “Merlot” our palates were accustomed to and also suffering from some inconsistencies in the quality of production, these Chilean imports achieved neither great financial nor critical success. It’s no small wonder that great Carmeneres from Chile had to wait until winemakers discovered that they weren’t able to produce a great Merlot because they simply weren't using Merlot grapes! It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the true identity of what had become one of South America’s major volume red wines was discovered. Since then, there’s been a gradual yet steady improvement in the wine and in the marketing efforts associated with its distribution. An enterprising importer even teamed up with one of the older immigrant wine estates (Vina Undurraga) and began offering some Carmenere wines with the tongue in cheek label of Oops (as in “Oops, my bad!”).
When fully ripened and produced well, Carmenere offers dark plum fruit flavors with light floral notes on the nose. There’s very little astringency and the tannins are usually round and smooth, much as the merlot it was once mistaken for. Good Carmeneres usually offer some light hints of spice, either mild black pepper or a taste similar to red chili peppers that have been slow roasted to appoint where they hint of sweetness. If the wine is produced from under-ripened grapes, however, the spice and floral notes often disappear and the fruitiness can be overpowered by a very veggie taste that is akin to bad tasting green bell peppers. In short, when it’s good, Carmenere is very, very good but when it’s not, it can be awful!
The good news is that there are a number of well made Carmeneres reaching the U.S. and like many other good red wines coming out of South American, they can be quite affordable. Here are some good, very affordable Carmeneres that The Wine Guy has had the pleasure of enjoying recently:
Santa Alicia Carmenere Reserva:
The 2008 vintage was rated 89 points and the 2009 came in at 90 points. This winery was the Chilean Winery of the Year two years ago and consistently makes good wines, often retailing in the U.S. for under $10!
Casillero del Diablo Carmenere Reserva from Concha y Toro:
These wines have been consistently rated in the upper 80’s for nearly a decade and generally retail under $15. Concha y Toro is one of Chile’s major wine producers and exporters and if you travel to Latin America, you will find this brand is the top seller in most of the countries you’ll visit.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild Carmenere Reserva:
From the Rothschild vineyards and winery in Chile that was founded by Baroness Philippa de Rothschild (Phillipe’s daughter) in the early 2000’s. This Carmenere is particularly smooth and noted for its judicious usage of oak ageing which can sometimes be unkind to Carmenere wine when not properly applied. In the U.S. it generally retails under $20 but is also highly popular in fine Mexican restaurants where it costs about the same as retail here.
One tip to readers who know The Wine Guy’s love and penchant for decanting his red wines: Carmenere is a red wine that doesn’t require lengthy decanting. Keep your airing brief on this red,
It’s glass ready with pouring and a little sloshing (how I love using that kind of technical wine term!) in your carafe.
Go ahead and do some exploration. Enjoy a Carmenere, Chile’s signature red wine.