The story of Carmenere, the emblematic grape variety of Chile, is quite unique. It begins in France, where Carmenere was one of the original six red varieties of Bordeaux (along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Although its origins are much older, Carmenere was best known through history for being used in Bordeaux blends.
That all changed in the late 1860s when the phylloxera plague decimated Europe’s vineyards and wiped out all the Carmenere plantings. As Carmenere had only ever really been planted in Bordeaux, it was presumed extinct thereafter.
While the Old World thought Carmenere was lost forever, in the New World – in Chile – the variety was thriving. Indeed there was more Carmenere planted in Chile than had ever been used in Bordeaux. But no one knew it was Carmenere…
The original Carmenere plantings had been brought to Chile in the 1850s, pre-phylloxera, and planted alongside numerous other grapes from Bordeaux. In a unwitting mix up (very common at the time), the Carmenere plantings were mistaken for Merlot. And replanted around the country as ‘Merlot’.
Over the following century, Chilean winemakers noticed that there was a great variety of ‘Merlot’ in their vineyards. And indeed much of their ‘Merlot’ was quite different to the newer plantings of Merlot brought in after the 1860s, and tasted very different to other Merlots in the world. The ‘Merlot’ (or clandestine Carmenere) plants flourished in Chile, but they produced fruit of a different flavour and the vines turned a bright red much earlier into the season. The old Carmenere cuttings were renamed ‘Chilean Merlot’ and soon Chile became famous for its unique style of Merlot.
It wasn’t until 24th November in 1994 that Carmenere’s secret identity was busted. A French researcher Jean-Michel Boursiquot was visiting the Maipo valley and spotted the different vines in a Merlot vineyard. He immediately identified it as the extinct (or so presumed) Carmenere wine variety. Consequent tests proved he was right.
Although this was perhaps the most exciting viticultural discovery of the century, it wasn’t an easy transition. Winemakers had been making Merlot for decades, who was to say they were wrong all these years? A couple years of disbelief, followed a few years of new and experimental viticulture and winemaking techniques. No-one had ‘made Carmenere’ for over a hundred years, and with almost the entire population of Carmenere plants in Chile – it was a uniquely Chilean challenge.
In 20 years the Chilean wine industry has come forward leaps and bounds with the variety, making world class wines that have garnered fans across the globe. The success of the variety inspired winemakers in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and even back in Bordeaux to grow Carmenere from Chilean cuttings.
Although Carmenere is now once again an international variety, its modern identity will always be Chilean.
Did you know?
- Old bottlings of Merlot (pre-1994) are often Carmenere, or have Carmenere in them. Even some post-1994 ‘Merlot’ bottles are actually Carmenere as it took some wineries several years to accept that their vineyards were in fact Carmenere.
- Vina Carmen was the first winery in Chile to put Carmenere on their label, in 1996.
Learn more about Carmenere and get recommended wines here!