Carmenere is a refugee from Bordeaux, brought to Chile long ago, so its lineage cannot be traced. What we historically know of Carmenere in the past comes mostly from Bordeaux, where it was a valued component in the blends of many Chateaux, contributing aromas and richness to wines. It was also a temperamental grape, rarely ripening fully in the cool, damp climate of Bordeaux and suffering from multiple maladies that made getting a useable crop a risky proposition.
Even when the grapes came in healthy, they still posed a challenge to growers in Bordeaux. Unusually rich in pyrazines and green tannins, Carmenere tends to produce tough wines with pronounced green pepper, herbal aromas and flavors when not fully ripened. In order to temper these traits, the vines require a long, warm, sunny growing season, something that Bordeaux rarely has but Chile is blessed with regularly.
After the Phylloxera epidemic swept through Bordeaux in the late 19th century, few growers thought that adding Carmenere back to the vineyard was worth the effort. The grape faded into obscurity until genetic testing revealed that it had been living happily in Chile the whole time.
In Chile, where sun is abundant, temperatures are warm during the summer days yet cool at night. With the addition of modest rainfall, Chile has proven to be the ideal place for Carmenere, though many people might argue with that statement. You see, there is a bit of a battle going on for the soul of Carmenere, with people on one side of the style spectrum saying that green is bad and needs to be reduced or eliminated, as many happily do in California with Cabernet, a distant cousin of this Chilean beauty.
On the other side of the battle line are those producers who prefer to see some green in their Carmenere wines, believing that it is an intrinsic element of the grape and a worthy expression of it at that.
I tend to fall in line with these producers, to a point. Of course I want some fruit in my wine, but at the same time the complexity imparted by the lovely herbaceous and spicy notes of just ripe Carmenere is both increasingly rare in today’s marketplace and a delightful accompaniment to a broad range of dishes. Even beyond the flavor battle there is a compelling reason to preserve some of the green character of Carmenere: freshness.
The way to reduce the greenness of Carmenere is through ripeness; either through exposing the grape clusters to light, which stimulates the production of sugars and fruit flavors while degrading pyrazines, or through later harvest, which achieves the same ends. Both techniques also tend to produce wines that are chunkier than their green cousins and less tannic.
Carmenere is not a terribly tannic wine, one of its most appealing attributes in fact is its soft yet present tannin that manages to lurk beneath the fruit surface in the wine. Pair these brisk little tannins with the lovely middle weight that many of the wines attain and you have a remarkably friendly and eminently drinkable wine, with a truly appealing mouth feel. Get it nice and ripe and you end up with something softer and plumper, and certainly less interesting.
So now you know what I want my Carmenere to be like. I tasted about two dozen examples while in Chile and truth be told there wasn’t a dud among them. Yes, some were too plump for my palate, but they all were well made and certainly helped me to better understand this lovely grape.
In addition to the classic leafy, green pepper and green tomato notes that many wines exhibited, I found a really intriguing orange oil note in several of the wines, along with plenty of rich yet not weighty black fruits, tobacco, peppercorns and a generally well judged use of oak.
These are wines that love food - steaks grilled over grapevines for example, or a nice rabbit stew simmered with olives and herbs. They are medium weight wines but have something innately hearty about them and enough complexity and depth to take on fairly rich and intensely seasoned foods. All things being equal, I would love to pair Carmenere with my favorite recipe for lamb ribs seasoned with herbs, allspice and orange peel, then grilled over a mesquite fire. That sounds like the perfect way to get to know Carmenere ever more intimately. Yes, I can do that, and here are some of the wines I hope to see there.
Incidentally, Carmenere gets its name from the brilliantly carmine red that the vine’s leaves turn each fall. It’s kind of ironic that a grape prone to green flavors can present such red foliage. It’s also kind of surprising that the Chileans didn’t recognize Carmenere as being distinct from Merlot much earlier because of its brilliant fall foliage. Maybe they were just trying to keep the wines for themselves!
French oak, violets, black spice, orange oil, briar wood, toasty rather sweet leading edge. Rich with a rigid, firm spine. Clear, fresh cut fruit, crushed blackberry, soft, a little creamy on the back end, tactile tannins on the finish, good length, powerful if balanced wine. 90pts
Earthy, bit of game, toasted nut note, low on the nose, this also has some orange oil, bright, earthy on the palate as well, transparent with really firm black fruit, edge of huckleberry, firm tight finish, a bit short finish, this is a bit inky. A bit Syrah-like with purple fruits and violets. 87
Smoky, very pipe tobacco, briary pipe smells, some nice fruit, blueberry notes, touch of confectioner’s sugar, hint of burnt marshmallow, weighty in the mouth, fine ripe tannins, plenty of fruit here, mulberry, black cherry and black berry, cedary top note on the back end, some fudge oak on the finish. Dry powdery wood tannins, a bit extracted, finishes short. 88
Bit of French oak, wood sweetness, toasted spices, green orange peel, bright and pure with wonderfully bright fruit and ripe tannins, touch of spice, fine, lively balance, orange oil hint. 88
This has tons of fruit on the nose along with a really finely integrated roasted, dried chile note. Oak spice adds complexity, plum, caper. This is one big wine but everything is in balance, fresh flavors, dense, dark chocolate and a bit mysterious, lovely integration and then the fruit comes out on the finish, tobacco and spice on the finish, really complex in a rather velvety package. 92pts
Perfumy oak, some nice eucalyptus edge, blueberry. A little Brett, though supposedly character of the cooler climate Carmenere. Leather, animal, red currant. Spicy on the nose, a touch black. Crisp, well focused and almost a bit lean but with plenty of richness emerging on the mid-palate. Spicy, minty and a bit oaky on the short finish. Bit of sweetness, bit of sweet black licorice, vanilla finale. Crisp and a little candied on the finale, easy, spicy, blueberryish fruit. 88pts
97% Carmenere, 3% Cabernet Franc
Black, graphite, violet pastille. Beefy, very perfumed wood. This shows some elegance with polished tannins. Nicely open knit, layered with fine shavings of chocolate, toast, tobacco. A bit lean on the back end, refined and showing restraint. Dry and decisive with good clarity to the fruit, edged in a faint pepper note. 90pts
Dark fruit, lots of cocoa, a bit feral, earthy, nice herbal spice but no green to speak of. Sweetness from oak, vanilla. A bit sweet on entry with a big carob note followed by a touch of herb, beefy flavors, caramel. This is big and a bit lazy. 85pts
Earthy, roasted green chile, green peppercorn, black peppercorn, savory. Big round fruit on entry, soft tannins, good acid, bit of tomato character on entry then mulberry and stony black fruit, good finish, touch of wood, really solid wine. 87pts
Fine, bit of green bell pepper, green peppercorn over lots of very Cabernet black currant fruit. Spicy floral notes, purple fruits, small berries. Bright, very finely balanced, focused. Again very aromatic but not as fruity as even I might like. Texturally very fine, soft tannins, nice tension, perfumey fruit, elegant in the light sense. 88pts
Low nose, bit rubbery, a bit of smoldering herbs, wild grape fruit, bit of basil stem, fine smoky oak note, hint of vanilla. Opulent and bright with soft tannins. Nice old vine feel up front. A touch meaty, ripe tannins, nice fruit, spiced plum, spicy black berry and black cherry fruit, a bit spicy on the back end, vanilla on the back end as well. Clean, fresh finish, good length, fair feel of dry extract. A bit of heat on the finish, decent length with strawberry. 89pts
2000 was first vintage, 2008 was the fifth vintage
Chocolate, big tobacco, huge mint as well. Soft, broad and fairly rich in the mouth with lots of nicely ripe tannins. This is fleshy but cut by the tannins and supported by vibrant acids. Lots of dark fruit, roasted black berry, big persistence of fruit on the palate, ivy and nutty oak on the finish. Very faint herbal, floral note on the mid-palate aromatics, bit inky on the finish, sour plum fruit, spicy green peppercorn kind of heat. 91pts
Crystallized black raspberry, bramble, little smoke, dried thyme, nice gentle white pepper spice. A bit soft on entry, nice density, nice fruit, very ripe yet fresh, nice mineral bed here. This has good clarity and transparency on the palate, lovely white pepper spice, no green here for better or worse, very faint green herb on nose, decisive texture, good cut on the back end. 89pts
Nice herbal, menthol, eucalyptus notes, a little char, some grilled meat notes. Almost chalky, dusty soil. This is firm in the mouth with plenty of black fruit, nice texture, sweet tannins, fine dark berry fruit. Spicy with a bit of black pepper. Fresh and crisp, lively with blueberry fruit and a savory layer of tannin. 90pts
More redux, light grassy top note, little sweet toasty spice, plummy, spicy with a hint of sweet spices and a suggestion of pepper. Soft on the palate and loose, aromatic in the mouth. Nice violet, mulberry fruit. Perfumed up front then not a huge finish, juicy on the back end. 85pts
Oregano, basil, green pepper, roasted tomato, light oak underlay, soft on the palate, deep, black fruit, spiced. This tastes like licking a rock, fine dried chile note here, dense with a very faint sweetness, lots of dry tannins on the back end, nice black pepper notion on the finish which shows a nice return to black fruit. 92pts
Nice herbal, menthol, camphor edge. Sweet crushed fruit, nice light green peppercorn spice, soft, broad, open knit. Little black fruited, less obvious than the Malbec. Less fruity, slightly stemmy quality. Nice finish is a touch inky, good black currant/black cherry fruit. Nice round wine, the tannins just have a fine edge to them, very refreshing. Nice balance of fruit and structure fresh and typical. 89pts
5% Syrah, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon
Super fine sage, menthol and spinach notes. Jammy, almost fudgy fruit. Really pronounced carob notes, jammy black fruit with wild strawberry hints, black cherry. Opulent and rich, soft tannins, gentle rosemary herbal spice top notes, fine crushed currant and black cherry fruit, hint of green orange peel, rich with soft tannins, fine bright acid, juicy finish, spicy finish, little bit of heat. Finish shows a touch balsamic, very fresh and zesty. 90pts