Getting Acquainted With Chileâ€™s Carmenere
Picture this. You walk into a tapas bar in Chile replete with hanging ham hocks, cured olives in buckets and fresh fish bathing in ice. You do your best to pronounce everything with a Spanish accent, and the waiter answers you in English. You want a “local” red wine. He smiles and says he has just the thing for you. He brings a carafe of red and asks you to taste it. Ooh, it’s good.
“What is it?” you ask. He responds, “It’s Carmenere.”
This French transplant has found a home in the vineyards of Chile. It is originally from Bordeaux, and was traditionally used as a blending grape. It can have thick tannin, deep color and is often mistaken for Merlot.
For decades many wine growers in Chile mistakenly thought that they had planted Merlot in their vineyards but, in fact, after an ampelographic study of the vines, they found that most of it was actually Carmenere.
The fruit character is mostly plum with some raspberries, blackberry and always a hint of the savory, perhaps almost herbaceous edge that can remind some of tomato leaf or sage. Body-wise it can be a spitting image of Merlot, with a smoothness that attracts many to its call.
The Bordelais used this to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec to create complexity. These days, finding Carmenere in Bordeaux is like finding a snowball in Hawaii. It’s possible, but almost no one has seen it.
But in Chile it has found its identity. Chile has the largest acreage of Carmenere in the world. Winemakers in Chile see Carmenere not only as a blending grape, but as a grape that can stand on its own. It’s one of the only places in the world where you will find it as a single varietal on a wine list or on a wine shelf. The Chilean wine industry has taken Carmenere as its signature grape. When wine connoisseurs think about Chile, they think of Carmenere. They are inextricably linked.
Why don’t more people drink Carmenere? Is it too hard to pronounce? Perhaps, but that would underestimate most of the drinking public. Most have never heard of it. It is still in the obscure category, except in Chile, of course. Most wine shops in Hawaii do not stock a lot of Chilean wine. If they do, it is more likely Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon in the inexpensive category. At the same time, even the savvy wine buyer realizes that today’s consumer is not willing to fork out a ton of money to try something “new” like Carmenere, so when you see a bottle of Carmenere, it is usually in the “value” category. Accordingly the wine is good, but a far cry from the best that Carmenere can do. In some cases, those who try it for the first time are put off by the herbaceousness and don’t ever come back. And Carmenere, more than many other red varietals, needs to be perfectly ripe to succeed. Luckily there are some very nice and successful Carmenere out there, and they offer some great value.
One of the best values is the 2008 Montgras Carmenere Reserve. At around 13 bucks, this has a nose steeped in red berries with notes reminiscent of sandalwood and a freshly watered garden. It is not thick or heavy, but more rounded and Merlot-like. Casa Lapostolle ($15) also makes a very nice version of Carmenere that leans more toward the juicy, fruity, softer side, as if it were spiked with some Shiraz. Mouth-filling and tasty, this is a great wine for grilling and barbecues.