Looking for something new and a little different in your wine drinking repertoire? Just as the season subtly shifts to late summer/early fall, so does our lifestyle. Suddenly there are fun new options at the farmers market that change the way we cook and eat, and the cooler temps influence what we choose to drink with our meals. If you’re a red wine fan, you should consider Carmenère for a slightly different twist and a colorful history. In its native land Carmenère was an obscure Bordeaux variety that was virtually wiped out by the plant louse phylloxera in the mid 19th century. However, in Chile it’s a different story – on many levels. The grape found its way to Chile via French winemakers relocating to this “phylloxera free” land where they could continue cultivating their Bordeaux varieties. In doing so, Carmenère vines were planted among existing Chilean Merlot vines and soon misidentified and sold as Merlot for decades. It wasn’t until 1993 through ampelography (the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) that it was discovered vines labeled as Merlot were really Carmenère. Initially some wineries ignored the findings and continued labeling under Merlot, but eventually they embraced Carmenère’s achievements and it is quickly becoming known as one of Chile’s signature grapes.
Early success with the grape came from plantings primarily in Central Colchagua and now it has spread to other areas, including Maipo and Maule. Carmenère is a very vigorous, late ripening grape, approximately three weeks later than Merlot. It thrives in an extremely dry environment and the harder the vines have to struggle for water the deeper the root system, resulting in higher quality fruit. It has a signature herbal/green pepper aroma, which is a positive characteristic. If you encounter excessive green pepper notes it can indicate under ripe fruit, not so positive. Under ideal conditions, when the fruit is harvested fully ripe, Carmenère is lush and smooth with round tannins. It exhibits plum and blackberry fruits followed by hints of coffee and chocolate with a slightly smoky and spicy finish. It’s a nice alternative to Zinfandel, Syrah or Malbec. In other growing regions the grape goes by different names, it’s Shelongzhu in China and Black Bordeaux in Italy for example, but Chile remains the success story.
Carmenère is quite food-friendly and can be enjoyed with a variety of dishes. It pairs very well with lamb, pork sausage or duck. It also matches nicely to dishes prepared with garlic, fennel, olives, curry or mushrooms. Don’t feel like cooking? Order up some of your favorite Indian dishes, lamb curry and tandoori chicken are always winners, perhaps invite a few friends and open a bottle of Carmenère. Cheers!