Carmenere has become Chile’s go-to grape. This outcast of Bordeaux found the combination of sun, soil and climate that it requires to excel on the western slopes of Chile’s Andes mountain valleys.
Carmenere is a bit of a misunderstood variety, generally offering up some rather assertive herbal elements, but that distinctive earthy/herbal quality of Carmenere is what attracts many to these wines. Back in the day, you could get this sort of complexity in Bordeaux and Napa Cabernets, but styles change. Today the tendency is towards fruitier wines that literally have their herbaceousness cooked out of them.
Photo courtesy rgomez74 via Flickr/Creative Commons
“Herbal qualities are not inherent in Cabernet,” is a common chorus among winemakers who are making these increasingly jammified wines. Yes, okay, perhaps Cabernet does not have to be herbaceous, but a bit of herbaceousness adds complexity and depth. So where to turn if you’re turned on by this interplay of sweet and savory? Carmenere.
Interestingly, Carmenere is a soul mate of Malbec, that other Bordeaux transplant that found true love in South America – Argentina, in that case.
The two grapes were troublemakers in Bordeaux, requiring exceptional conditions to properly mature, conditions that might have come about once or twice a decade, and yet until relatively recently, winemakers tended to keep a little of each in their vineyards. If it wasn’t because it was easy to grow (that honor goes to Merlot), then it must have been because it is capable of producing something extraordinary.
In Chile, Carmenere is treated to a growing season that is long and warm in comparison to Bordeaux’s, and far sunnier too. You might ask why that’s important, and the truth is, it’s vital to understanding Carmenere in Chile.
Carmenere, like many Bordeaux varieties, tends to be vegetal when not fully ripened. The vegetal aromas come from a chemical known as pyrazines. At their most aggressive, they lend aromas of green bell peppers and other vegetables to a wine but in low concentrations, that strong bell pepper can turn into green olives, roasted chilies, rosemary and sage – all things that add complexity and savoriness to a wine.
I know a lot of people like fruity wines and there is nothing wrong with that. The world is awash in delish fruity wines and there are even fruity Carmeneres; but I also enjoy wines that have a savory element. In fact, I prefer them.
So what about that sunlight issue, then? Well, one of the way to reduce, or even essentially eliminate, pyrazines in your wines is to expose the grapes to direct sunlight. This canopy management as it’s known has been used successfully with Cabernet Sauvignon, some (myself included) may argue too successfully.
Carmenere, however, with its more aggressively vegetal component is harder to tame, so some taming actually works splendidly. Reducing overt vegetal qualities while adding depth and savoriness to a fruity wine sounds exactly like what I wish more producers were doing.
So that explains why Chilean Carmenere might be the next big thing. It sort of resembles some of the last big things, namely Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly enough, until about 1995 most of what we now know to be Carmenere in Chile was thought to be Merlot. These grapes can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish, but pity the poor Chilean farmers who must have wondered why their Merlot was so damn vegetal!
I tasted 17 current releases and can say that the overall quality level was quite high.
Like most of the world’s great wines, there are good values to be found at every price level for Chilean Carmenere. And as is all too frequently the case, some of the more expensive examples try too hard to overdeliver and succeed with lots of jammy fruit and oak while some of the less expensive wines tend to actually overdeliver with fun pure fruit, simply because tricks are not covered in their budget.