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If you’ve never heard of Carménère wine, you are not alone. Just last year, the varietal celebrated its 20th anniversary of being an officially recognized Chilean wine, a huge achievement for wineries that began producing Carménère as early as 1996. The grape itself though has taken a long journey to find a stable home in the warm South American climate. It’s originally a French wine that was brought to the region in the mid-19th century after failing to gain success and popularity in Medoc, Bordeaux. In fact, Carménère is considered to be one of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
Carménère’s story is very much that of an underdog. Even in Chile, it took growers several years to realize that what they thought was Merlot was actually a more unique relative. From the French word carmin, the name literally means crimson, like the bright, rich red characteristic of Carménère’s look and taste. As it has similar notes of plum and black cherry to that of a Merlot, winemakers originally began blending the two for a more mellow flavour and lower acidity. However, consumers soon began to appreciate the purity of Carménère on its own and embraced the spicy, bitter finish that compliments the wine’s rich fruit so well. As of today, Chile enjoys the wine so much that it is the official grape of the country.
Wine in Chile
Though Chile is very much a new world wine region, the climate and coastal growing areas are complementary to many old-world grapes, especially French varietals. When Carménère was first introduced in Chile, it was planted in the Central Valley around Santiago, the main wine region of the country. In the Central Valley, you will also find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Bordeaux blends. These blends are Chile’s own take on a French classic and combine all six of the original red grapes for a lush Bordeaux flavour at an excellent value.
In general, wines from the Central Valley are sure to be some of the best quality for the price. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most-planted grape in Chile, and Central Valley Cabs are lower in tannins, with juicy notes of plum and fresh mint on the finish. You may see bottles labelled with one of several Central Valley subregions including Maipo, Colchagua and the Maule Valley, all excellent choices for a great bottle of wine at $20 or less. Keep your eye on Colchagua for a great Carménère as well, where the warm climate lends a Cab-style fullness to the bright Carménère grape.
While the more inland growing regions are better for aged wine, the cooler coastline is known for producing bright Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The South Region below the Central Valley and the Aconcagua Region to the north offer lovely minerality and acidity to these grapes, which thrive in the ocean breeze. Particularly, the Casablanca Valley which is 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean is an ideal location for cool-climate grapes such as these.
Finally, to the far north in the Atacama Region and the far south in the Austral Region, you will find unique, sweet wines and aperitifs, such as Pisco and Muscat. Pisco is a South American original brandy, made by distilling fermented grape juice for high alcohol content. It has a long history in the region, first developed by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Pisco is made from various types of Muscat grapes, a varietal that was popular for making very sweet wines in the 1700s. Today, you can find dessert wines made with Pais and Moscatel grapes, though very few wineries produce these styles anymore.
There are two main geographical elements that impact the growth and production of Chilean wines: the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The sea plays a large role in maintaining ideal temperatures for the vineyard, a key to any grape’s success, while the Andes act as a barrier to outside elements, like pests and other contaminants. While these two natural forces theoretically create idyllic growing conditions, the range of soil types and terrain throughout the country is extremely diverse, making some regions less conducive to vineyards than others.
Chile is a long, narrow country, characterized as about 80% mountainous and bordered entirely by the Pacific Ocean on one side. In each designated growing region or valley, soil can vary drastically based on elevation and water flow. In the northern-most regions, rainfall can be as little as one inch per year, with vast temperature shifts. However, the coastal regions up north receive ocean breezes and morning fog that help to regulate temperature shifts, and the result is creamy Sauvignon Blanc, fresh Chardonnay and a light Syrah.
The middle of the country, which includes the Central Valley, has a warm Mediterranean climate but receives cooler winds from the Andes and a mellow breeze from the coast. In the drier, warmer west the vines are protected a bit more from the ocean breeze and red wines flourish here. Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec are particularly exquisite in the Calchagua Valley, where the Tinguiririca River brings meltwater, silts and clays to the vines for a perfect balance of moisture. In addition, the steep sloping mountains create an excellent drainage system while taking advantage of peak hours of sunlight. As you find vines growing further up the mountains, the wine will become gradually more acidic and floral as the high elevation creates a temperature shift. If you like a lighter style wine, look for one from the Andes region in particular.
In the south, you will find something almost completely different, a rain-heavy region with volcanic soil that has recently been found to create a perfect home for buttery Chardonnay. Vineyards are still few and far between here, but between the rich whites and a unique, bright Pinot Noir, it’s something not to miss.
What Sets Carménère Apart?
Carménère is undoubtedly similar to its relatives in the Bordeaux family, with red fruit flavours, spicy notes of green peppercorn and a highly aromatic finish. Carménère on its own is slightly punchier than the rest of the bunch, with a strong finish of pepper and eucalyptus or cocoa aromas that are the result of a high level of pyrazines, an aromatic compound known for its savoury effects.
This spicy freshness will be more prominent in younger vintages, but Carménère is a wine that ages very well and will resemble a fine Bordeaux when given time to mellow. In a fine Carménère, you will note a distinct creaminess and fine tannins that accentuate the density of the fruit. The best bottles will also often have a high ABV of 14.5 – 15%.
As mentioned, the diversity of Chile’s landscape will impact the flavour profile of each Carménère, with the boldest variations coming from the Cachapoal and Colchagua Valleys. Farther north and up into the Andes you will note a lighter take on these rich flavours with more prominent minerality and floral notes. In many cases, you may even see Carménère blended with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly in younger bottles or those from the northern vineyards. In Chile, single-varietal wines may have up to 15% of other grape types blended in, so taking note of region, vintage and variety are important to distinguish Carménère’s true flavour.
The Best of the Best
Because of Carménère’s relative novelty within the country, there are still several producers duking it out to claim the title of Chile’s very first Carménère. Motes, Concha y Toro, and Vina Errazuriz are examples of some producers putting out the vest best Carménère the world has to offer. And more than one of them may claim to have made the very first iconic Carménère.
Montes’ “Purple Angel” contains 8% Petit Verdot and originates from the Colchagua Valley. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels which heighten the notes of cocoa you may detect on the palate. Montes claims the valley’s best terroir in the area of Apalta, where mild exposure means a longer ripening process and delicate flavour. The soft-touch of Petit Verdot offers floral notes of violet which are herbaceous and fresh against the mellow tannins.
Another award-winning brand is Vina Errazuriz, whose KAI Carménère contains 7% Syrah and is aged for 22 months in French oak. The long ageing process produces a rich, lush wine with notable hints of cedar, ash and black truffle. You will still find the soft tannins of a fine Carménère but with bright acidity that and complex flavour profile.
For the purist, you may decide on one of Concha y Toro’s Carménères, which are accessibly priced and available at many outlets across North America. Give the Reserva Privada Carménère a try, which is aged for 13 months in American oak barrels. The residual flavour from the ageing process is minimal, leaving you with the pure, fresh flavour of the grape. The fruit is well balanced with a definite peppery finish, making it a wonderful choice for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of red wine, beyond the typical.
You may find that the Carménère selections in your local wine retailer are limited, but if you have access to an ample collection, it’s worth experimenting with a few different brands and vintages. While Carménère can be enjoyed young or aged, you should only look for vintages 2010 or later. 2010 – 2013 vintages will best be enjoyed right away, while newer bottles can be aged an additional year or two, or opened for a fresh flavour.
- “Herencia” by Santa Carolina, $64 – This 100% Carménère from the Cachapoal Valley is a perfect example of finely aged wine. It’s bold and well-rounded with an intense, long finish. It’s a wonderful way to appreciate the complexity of the grape, with bold aromas and a herbaceous ending. Find 2010 if you can and I promise you won’t regret it.
- “Alka” by Francois Lurton, $60 – Another 100% Carménère bottle, Francois Lurton’s grapes come from both the Lolol and Apalta terroirs. A classically bold and acidic variation, this bottle also has strong notes of eucalyptus, pepper and cinnamon on the finish. The 2014 vintage is far superior.
- “El Incidente” by Viu Manent, $50 – Another excellent example of classic Carménère flavours, this wine is deep in colour and complex in flavour, but with a soft and mellow mouthfeel. This unique blend contains 3% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot.
- “Cuvee Alexandre” by Lapostolle, $25 – This winery has land in the Colchagua, Casablanca and Chachapoal Valleys which creates a complex, lush bottle of Carménère with unique hits of cassis and currant on the palate. With a medium to full body and earth finishes, this would be a great bottle to age.
- “Gran Devocion” by Vina Maipo, $25 – For those who want their wine to have a spicy, smoky punch right from the start, this bottle is for you. Charred oak and black fruit are at the front of this Carménère, while the acidity gradually increases for an intense and unique profile.
- “Single Vineyard Carménère” by Oveja Negra, $17 – This is a wonderful example of a great young Carménère. This bottle has high acidity, but lower alcohol content than most, with very earthy flavours that balance out the punchy fruit.
- “Carménère Tradition” by Los Boldos Chateau, $11 – This bottle is a great value from the Rapel Valley. Notably sweeter fruit flavours than its more expensive counterparts, this wine is full-bodied and well-rounded with big red fruit at the forefront.
For such a unique wine, Carménère is remarkably versatile when it comes to food pairings. The high acidity means this deep red can stand up to bold flavours and spices, while the soft tannins make it appropriate for both light and rich dishes. As you might imagine, this Chilean wine pairs naturally with South American flavours, and is an excellent companion to the complex spice blends of carne asada, chicken mole, or Cuban pork. The fruitiness of this wine also matches well with lamb and gamey meats such as turkey and venison.
If you’re looking to curate a cheese board, Carménère pairs best with bold flavours, so bring out all the powerful players. Tangy goat cheese and salty feta are perfect with this lush wine, while a good pepper jack is always a safe bet for something slightly unexpected. Include savoury accompaniments like olives and cornichons to bring out the best flavours in the wine. One piece of advice though, avoid anything too sweet as the acidity of Carménère can create a displeasing contrast to foods with high sugar content.
As a member of the Bordeaux family, Carménère carries many similarities to this group of rich French reds. Carménère perhaps most resembles Merlot though, with notes of black cherry and plum, soft tannins and aromas of tobacco and spice. Like Carménère, Merlot will be more fruit-forward in warm climates and slightly more acidic in cool climates. Both Merlot and Carménère can sometimes even be wrongly identified as Cabernet Sauvignon for its earthy flavours and rich red fruits.
Carménère should be stored at a temperature between 60 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Like most medium to full-bodied red wines, it is preferred that the wine come to room temperature before serving and that the bottle has ample time to air. Open the bottle one hour before you plan to consume it and leave in a neutral, room temperature setting. The result will be a perfectly aromatic and flavour-packed Carménère. If you have them on hand, it would also be wise to use a large, tulip-shaped glass for serving this wine so that the bold aromas have room to circulate in the glass and to the nose.
The first thing you will note on the palate when drinking Carménère is the tart fruity flavours of raspberry and black cherry. As a medium-bodied wine, the fruit will not typically linger too long, as it soon gives way to a peppery finish and fine minerality. If you have a high-end bottle of Carménère, you will likely find it to be more fruit-forward as there is less bitterness to cut the sweetness. You should note a slight smokiness of tobacco or cocoa powder on the finish.
Carménère is quite dry, though the fruit-forward notes and soft tannins in this lush red make it palatable to all flavour preferences. Those who prefer the puckering-effect of a Cabernet or Malbec will likely find Carménère most appealing though, as there are very little residual sugar and definite peppery spice that makes it quite distinct from other dry reds.
Like many wine enthusiasts, I am always looking to expand my horizons beyond the typical and find something new that can teach me a bit about a new region or culture. Carménère is a perfect example of an accessible wine that will appeal to wine novices and experts alike. Fans of big bold reds will love Carménère’s rich fruitiness, while those who tend to prefer a light Pinot Noir or even a rose will appreciate the acidic bite and spicy finish of this wine.
Carménère also lends the consumer an opportunity to discover the very new viniculture of Chile, in which the wine’s flavour changes significantly based on the location of the grapes. Explore Carménère from the coast to the dry valleys to the mountainous Andes, as each landscape has something special to offer. But no matter where the bottle is from, make sure to enjoy it with loved ones and take some time to share a bit of knowledge about this new world of wine.