Carménère Wine Master Class: Lessons Learned

 


Carménère is an old grape variety from the Gironde. DNA analysis suggests that it’s a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet (which is itself a distant relative of Cabernet Franc). Fortunately for our collective palates, when it comes to wine grape parentage, breeding with a relative can be a very good thing. Carménère is a highly refined pedigree and it delivers a true range of flavors. You’ll find herbaceous notes like tomato and pepper evolving into young, tight bunches of fresh berry fruits. Increased levels of ripeness bring dark, moist clumps of blackberry and blueberry, coffee and dark chocolate notes.  

The Carménère wine grape shares an inextricably deep bond with Chile. Their relationship dates back to the late 1800s when the grape came to Chile by way of Bordeaux. It was mislabeled as Merlot (or “Merlot Noir”) upon arrival. The grape was grown in Chile under this false name for decades.
By the late 1800s, Phylloxera had destroyed nearly all of Europe’s Carménère just as it ravaged many of the continent’s other vines.  At the time and for years following, the native incarnation of Carménère was believed to be extinct. But in 1994, French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot saw the “Merlot Noir” in a Chilean vineyard and recognized it as Carménère. DNA analysis confirmed his assessment and the grape’s true identity was revealed. Since this unmasking, Carménère has become Chile’s superstar grape. It was recognized by Chilean authorities as the country’s official variety in 1998.

Chile is an essential part of Carménère’s story, and the tale has continued to progress. I conducted a master class with five wine writers focused exclusively on this very special grape. We tasted through a selection of eleven Carménère wines. That’s right, eleven.

Carménère and Chile is the perfect match. Chile’s climate is warmer and drier than Carménère’s native home in southwest France. The grape can ripen for a longer period of time in Chile. More ripening brings lusciousness to the wines, but not at the expense of the varietal’s innately herbaceous aromas and flavors. Carménère also offers sophisticated fruit flavors well-suited to all palates, but especially those that don’t want their fruit overblown. At this point, the quality-to-price ratio (QPR) favors the consumer. Other regions of the world have a relationship with Carménère, which is something we explored in our master class as well.

The Wines

Tasting eleven wines made from the same grape in a single hour is one of the best ways to get an excellent wine education. You’ll pounce upon your intuitions and quickly realize that your first thoughts are quite often your best.
 
       
Cono Sur Bicicleta Carménère Central Valley Chile 2015

Cono Sur has embraced natural vineyard management and organic production. For them, this is what  “Bicicleta” represents. The wine comes to us from Chile’s Central Valley, a large depression between the Pacific coastal mountains and the Andes (bordering Argentina) just south of Chile’s capital, Santiago. The Central Valley is supplied with water from the Andes. It contains four sub-regions, many of which have sub-regions of their own. The Central Valley is where the vast majority of Chilean vineyards are found. Its geographical advantages make ripening a cinch. Tasting note: Dusty and herbal, this shows a lot of spunk with red fruit aromas of cranberry, strawberry and cherry. Lots of character and a bold presentation in the mouth, this is smoky and earthy with chewy tannins and chunky black fruit showing nicely on the mid palate culminating in a dark chocolate and espresso on the finish.


Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserva Central Valley Chile 2015

Casillero del Diablo is a storytelling bottle for the ages. According to legend, back in 1883, Don Melchor Concha y Toro sought the expertise of the French to begin producing quality wines in Chile. These wines were stored in his personal cellar. Once word got out about his collection people began to steal coveted bottles from his cellar. To combat theft, Melchor Concha y Toro started a rumor about the Devil appearing in the cellar and in the vineyard. The rumor spread like wildfire and deterred thieves from coming anywhere near his cellar. His prized wine collection was preserved. Once again, the QPR on this bottle is extraordinary. Tasting note: Fresh and lively on the palate, good acidity with tart red fruit flavors of cherry and cranberry, medium-full bodied with a finish of earthy chocolate and black coffee.


Casas del Bosque Carménère Reserva Rapel Valley 2015

Casas del Bosque was established in 1993 as a family boutique winery. They currently produce 90,000 cases per year at incredible value to the consumer. This bottle had fifteen days of fermentation followed by an additional five days of post-fermentation maceration. That’s nineteen days of skin contact, and the color on this wine really shows it. Carménère grape skins are on the higher side of color intensity because of their strong concentration of anthocyanins and flavonoids. Tasting note: Breezy and light on the nose, with the slightest touch of a green note but raspberry, red currant and cherry fruit taking the lead. Quite light and cheerful on the palate, this brings candied cherry and mixed berry fruit, bright acidity and an earthy finish of dark chocolate.


Concha y Toro Serie Riberas Carménère Gran Reserva Peumo 2014

This is another selection from Concha y Toro. The wine received 90 points from Wine Spectator. It comes from the Cachopoal Valley, which is in the northern section of the Rapel Valley. (The Rapel is one of the Central Valley’s four subregions.) Cachopoal is a warm area cut off from ocean breezes. As a result Carménère ripens especially well in this location. Tasting note: Floral and fresh on the nose with zesty spice and ripe red fruit notes of cherry, strawberry and raspberry along with a touch of cream. This is expansive on the palate with generous strawberry and cherry fruit preserves that border on the richness of pie filling before sloping off towards earthy oak spice, cappuccino and chocolate notes.


Los Vascos Carménère Grande Reserve Colchagua Valley 2013

This wine is part of the Lafite tradition. Chateau Lafite Rothschild is synonymous with fine French wine and their efforts are global. Metaphorically speaking, this bottle brings Carménère back to France to share everything it has learned in Chile. Tasting note: Herbal notes of eucalyptus and green pepper in the glass, though plenty of dark cherry and blackberry/raspberry fruit. Similar flavors continue through to the palate, where they are joined by rich spice and generous tannins, more dark blackberry and an increasing intensity of lingering earthiness towards the finish.

 
Apaltagua Red Blend Colchagua Valley Envero 2014

The oldest vines used in Envero were planted on the Apaltagua property in 1950 with newer plantings coming as recently as 2013 in the Colchagua Valley. This subregion is part of Rapel’s southern valley but also incorporates the Rapel River up the coast. It is much larger and more varied than Cachapoal. Colchagua is a name you will often see on bottles because of the positive reputation the area has rightfully earned. Vines are planted as high as 3,300 feet, and the region is comprised of many tiny zones due to the highly varied soils – clay, silt, sand and some volcanic areas too. Rich perfume and floral notes of blackberry, clay and savory spice on the nose. Firm, focused and assertive on the palate, this has tart acidity and herbal notes of olive and pepper out front of dark berry and cherry fruit that finishes with a touch of heat, loads of spice and a dark chocolate cream.


Casa Silva Los Lingues Vineyard Carménère Colchagua Valley 2014

Casa Silva is a leader in the promotion and research around the Carménère grape, specifically in the the Los Lingues area at the foothills of the Andes in Colchagua. Casa Silva was the very first to plant in this área in 1997. Many other wineries have followed suit. Their research studies various Carménère clones under a variety of conditions. They tweak details like terroir and climate to learn more about this special grape. Tasting note: Light and elegant aromas of red currant, cherry and floral blossom notes framed by a hint of baking spice. Fresh berry, cherry and strawberry fruit is well developed and silky textured on the palate, restrained around the edges but with a strong core that drops into a tannic chew towards the finish where the fruit is joined by a touch of cream and menthol before ending on chocolate cherry.


Colli Berici Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carménère Riserva 2012

Carménère has many guises, and not just in Chile. The grape has been in the Veneto since the mid-19th century and for 150 years it was thought to be Cabernet Franc. DNA testing in 1993 showed it to be Carménère. Oratorio di San Lorenzo is the only 100 percent Carménère in Italy, and it is the only winery in Italy to truly focus on Carménère and make it the centerpiece of their portfolio. This is a fresh, hip cult favorite which will impress any and all of your wine loving friends. Tasting note: Bold and assertive mixed berry fruit with concentrated aromas and fresh floral spice on the nose. Concentrated and focused on the palate, this over delivers on fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry and strawberry with rough tannins drying the mouth towards the finish where they're supported by butter cream and vanilla, loads of acidity and a dark chocolate finish.


Montes Alpha Carménère Colchagua Valley 2013

Montes is known for quality Carménère and in this bottle has focused on Apalta which is a distinct tract from Colchagua’s valley slopes. The area has boomed over the last decade and is now associated with premium wines. Montes in an Apalta pioneer. The winery is also noted for applying the principles of Feng Shui to their winemaking. Gregorian chants are constantly played in the barrel room to spirit wines through fermentation and the ageing process. Tasting note: Lightly savory aromas of fresh cherry and strawberry with bold spice, some floral hints and even a touch of wheatiness. More bold fruit flavors on the palate, rich full bodied and earthy with blackberry, cranberry and red currant fronting for rough tannins and a slightly softer finish of milk chocolate and cream.


Viña Maquis Viola Carménère 2010

The Maquis Estate is located in the heart of the Colchagua Valley where the Tinguiririca River meets the Chimbarongo Creek. Here you will find alluvial soils over a layer of gravel and cooler maximum summer temperatures. Tasting note: Deceptively light aromas of red berry, cherry and smoke. This is textured and chunky with firm tannins on the palate, good red fruit character of strawberry and cherry with a pronounced smoke permeating through and ending on a creamy dark chocolate mousse and baking spice.


Purple Angel Colchagua Valley 2013
This is another premium selection from Montes hailing from Apalta. These wines show just want Chile is capable of in the premium category. Tasting note: Big and bold aromas of blackberry preserves and cherry with vanilla cream on the nose. This doesn't hold back from fruit and spice with a bolt of acidity running through it and cranberry, raspberry and cherry fruit taking the mid palate, almost candied with floral hints and a finish that's tart, chewy and drying with a hint of menthol.


Takeaways

Carménère brings an air of sophistication and can offer something to many palates. The fruits are bold but will not strangle your taste buds. These wines are perfect to share with those who crave wines with restrained yet elegant fruit, surprising complexity and firm structure. The value is clear at all price points. See below to read more from our master class attendees:

Gabe Sasso
Jeff Kralik
Michelle Williams
Sara Lehman
Todd Godbout

Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • This was a great series of articles and tasting notes. I added several of these wines to my shopping list. Thanks, Craig

    Jan 05, 2017 at 3:53 PM


  • Snooth User: Jeff Nott
    589275 17

    Discovered this wine many years ago. A very nice alternative to the overbearing Cabs and underwhelming Merlot.

    Jan 06, 2017 at 1:00 AM


  • Snooth User: cablecars
    321328 14

    I think I have had Carmenere but not for a loong while. I don't think of it right away all the time. Got to get my hands on some. THey thought it was another grape? I wonder why.

    Jan 06, 2017 at 6:19 AM


  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,077

    We need more articles like this.

    Jan 06, 2017 at 12:12 PM


  • Snooth User: loccasion
    1862723 30

    This is a master-class that caught my eye. Very interesting history with an up-to-date flavor profile. Something for now, with a story about then!

    Jan 06, 2017 at 4:56 PM


  • Snooth User: Maurice13
    1451782 6

    How about adding approximate prices to your reviews? Easier to compare Quality-to-Price Ratios.

    Jan 12, 2017 at 10:11 AM


  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,077

    Adding prices is a great idea.

    Jan 12, 2017 at 10:55 AM


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    Jan 20, 2017 at 11:35 AM


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