“Carmenère will be Chile’s flagship variety,” declared Rene Merino, the President of Wines of Chile in 2010. When I heard this, my jaw dropped and my eyes widened in disbelief. What?! This herbal, dark, tannic variety with as much bitterness as blackberry fruit would be promoted as the emblematic red wine from Chile? Surely this is madness, I silently thought to myself at that time.
The star role of Carmenère for Chile was announced in the Strategic Plan 2020 in 2010, shortly before I was in Santiago judging in the annual Wines of Chile competition. During my weeklong stay in Chile in 2011, I tasted several dozen Carmenères and found most of them to be lacking.
Six years later, after tasting nearly 50 Carmenères in Santiago last month, I was again, in disbelief, but this time for the opposite reason. I could not believe how dramatically Carmenère had changed and how wrong I was to dismiss this variety. The Carmenères I tasted were worlds apart from the selection I tried six years ago. The dark berry fruit was ripe; gone were the harsh tannins and bitter finish. In their place, dark savory herbs, spices and firm grippy tannins provided nice backbone to these full-bodied, luscious reds.
Carmenère is a former Bordeaux variety that went out of favor after the phylloxera epidemic, which was caused by a root-eating louse that decimated vineyards across France in the late 19th century. When the vineyards were replanted after finding the solution to the phylloxera problem – planting on American rootstocks – the Bordelais decided not to replant Carmenère because it had trouble ripening in the maritime climate.
Even in Chile, where the weather is more favorable to ripening Carmenère, it is hard to get it right. Eduardo Chadwick, president and owner of Errazuriz who makes a gorgeous Carmenère called Kai, says, “Out of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties, Carmenère is the latest to ripen, having the longest cycle to mature. Therefore, Chile´s wonderful growing conditions with sunny, long dry summers and autumns are ideal to ripen this grape variety to perfection almost every season.”
However, he adds a note of caution: “To shine for its quality, it has to achieve a high level of ripeness, therefore it has to be grown in the right terroirs with enough sun exposure to ripen and to burn out its natural pyrazines [unripe, herbaceous flavors].”
Aurelio Montes, of Montes winery, is cautiously optimistic about the future of Carmenère. “Yes we now have very good Carmenères but it will take another full generation to really get it right. We had a bad beginning because when we started, we were not always planting in the best places and we didn’t know how to handle the tough tannins. So some people may have had a bad image or experience with Carmenère.”
As a variety unique to Chile, it adds a unique touch to many red blends and not just as a stand-alone variety. At Errazuriz, their two icon wines Seña and Don Maximiano both have Carmenère in the blend. Chadwick adds, “Carmenère contributes its intriguing spicy character and gives our wines an extra layer of complexity and silkiness which is very well appreciated by wine lovers around the world.”
Although Carmenère is a distant third in terms of production for red varieties – in the shadows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – in export markets, Carmenère is gaining a following. Chadwick explains, “The demand in export markets has been strong, today it’s the third most exported grape variety out of Chile, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. In Asia it would take second place after Cabernet Sauvignon, as this is mainly a red wine dominated market.”
Maule is the birthplace of Carmenère and according to Julio Alonso Ducci, director of Wines of Chile, Colchagua is currently the largest area and the main producer of Carmenère. He also suggests Cachapoal and Aconcagua as two other regions where high quality Carmenère can be found.
In 2015, wine exports from Chile to China grew by 36% and the vast majority were red varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère leading the way. One other connection that this variety has to China is that under a different name, Carmenère as Cabernet Gernischt is already popular and being heavily promoted by China’s domestic producers like Changyu and Great Wall. Should Chilean producers consider changing the name when exporting to China to one that is more familiar? It is certainly something for the marketing departments to consider.
My recent tasting in Chile was a revelation about how good Carmenère can be. Below is my top 10 list of Carmenères that can compete with the best red wines of the world (rated out of 100 points):
- 2012 Concha Y Toro Carmenere Carmin de Peumo, 94 points
- 2012 Montes Purple Angel, 94 points
- 2014 Siegel Single Vineyard Carmenere, 94 points
- 2013 Terranoble Lahuen Rojo Carmenere, 94 points
- 2008 Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenere, 93 points
- 2013 Concha Y Toro Carmenere Carmin de Peumo, 93 points
- 2013 Errázuriz Kai Carmenere, 93 points
- 2012 Morandé Gran Reserva Carmenere, 93 points
- 2014 San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Carmenere, 93 points
- 2014 Siegel Special Reserve Carmenere, 93 points