Carmenere is a well-travelled French variety that found its second home in Chile where it is now so widely grown that Chile is the world’s top producer of the variety, making 98% of it!
While it adapted to Chile very well, it was under the guise of a different variety – Merlot – that Chilean wine producers planted and produced it. The slightly different style that this Merlot in Chile produced from the Merlot found in other parts of the world led Chilean winemakers and drinkers to call it ‘Merlot Chileno’ as opposed to just plain old Merlot. This was indeed very different from any other Merlot because, as the intrepid French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot discovered in 1994, it was in fact the long lost French variety, Carmenere. One of the giveaways for Boursiquot, along with the leaf shape, was the leaf colour – Carmenere goes a flaming red during harvest months.
Since 1994, not only the name of the variety changed but viticulturists and winemakers began working the variety in a different way and the style changed. The separation of varieties also changed the style of Chilean Merlot, although if you find a pre-1994 bottle of Merlot, it could likely be Carmenere.
Although notoriously difficult to pronounce, Carmenere is one easy drinker. Filled with plump fruits and peppery herbal spice, Carmenere pairs with many different dishes from BBQ short ribs to corn tamales. Styles are also diverse with some opting to make plummy, opulent wines with sweeter oak aging, and others opt for a wilder version with fresh herbal and bell pepper notes.
Made all over Chile, the key regions are the warmer central valley regions and the mountain regions. Try Carmenere from Colchagua (especially Apalta), Aconcagua valley, Alto Cachapoal and Maipo.
One of the great classics of the Carmenere world, Purple Angel is a big wine that has been made from concentrated fruit and high quality oak aging and needs some time to spread its wings. Although you know that coming from Aurelio Montes and his team, these wings won’t be clipped and this top wine always goes flying from the shelves. Cellar for a few years before opening.
Another iconic Carmenere for Chile, Kai comes from the Errazuriz clan who specialise in the Aconcagua region. This version is richly spiced with deep red fruits and has tobacco and dark chocolate notes from years aged in barrels.
Also in Aconcagua valley, this is the top wine for this smaller producer – Von Siebenthal. A tense wine with darker fruits and a great structure that makes this a wine to cellar for a few years and enjoy when it is well aged to enjoy its optimum expression. Owner Mauro Von Siebenthal set out to make world class wines from his property in Aconcagua, and this is a good sign of where these wines will go.
Terroir Hunter is the excellent series of single vineyard wines from Undurraga winemaker Rafael Urrejola, taking regions from around Chile and making emblematic single variety wines that best represent the place – and picking places which he feels best represent the variety. Filled with red fruits and herbal notes, this Carmenere has a lot of characteristics of Peumo and also of the variety itself. The mouth is still fresh with tension from good acidity, and it doesn’t drown out any of Carmenere’s character with oak.
This collection doesn’t just boast one Carmenere in its portfolio, but three – and all from different terroirs in Colchagua. Vinified in the same way by winemaker Andrea Leon, they are small production and made with native yeast fermented in small bins and left in old, used barrels to offer the least interference and most ‘natural’ expression of the Carmenere itself. The different between the regions is fascinating: Portezuelo (San Fernando) is more floral and spicy with good acidity; Pumanque is wilder in the nose with more herbal aromas and a smoother mouth; and Apalta is more mineral and spicy in the nose but with a seductive nose and almost electric mouth.
Calcu specialise in making fresher wines with higher acidity due to earlier harvesting, and their Carmenere is no exception to the rule. Lively red fruits and a tickle of spice make this a bright wine that is very food friendly, and its $15USD price tag is particularly friendly.
Carmenere Day – 24 November
The discovery of Carmenere in Chile has been marked by the annual Carmenere Day, on 24th November. The first celebration was held in 2014, and each year Wines of Chile encourages drinkers all over the world to get on board with drinking Carmenere and sharing photos and posts over social media with #CarmenereDay