The Insobrietal Stowaway: Carménère's Fabled Ascent to Fame in the New World

One of the most exciting aspects of the wine world is its tremendous breadth and diversity. With more than 5,000 identified vitis vinifera varietals, there is no scarcity of exploratory adventures.  Of course, only a small fraction of these varietals can be found at your local wine shop, but nonetheless, if you exclusively procure Merlot and Cabernet, your vino consumption is tragically incomplete. Fear not; embrace the vinous underdogs! To commence the wine fridge expansion endeavor, I'll volunteer one example just in time for the summer barbie ...

I am, as the title foretells, talking about the wonderful yet largely forgotten varietal, Carménère (pronounced "car-men-nair"). It carries less notoriety than its distant cousins, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, yet it shares a similarly delightful profile and is extraordinarily food friendly. As a bonus, Carménère boasts a fascinating journey from the Old World to the New, from extinction to rebirth, from unwanted to celebrated. Everyone loves an intriguing narrative, and Carménère has a story to tell.

So toss a few charcoal briquettes in the grill, break out the red wine glasses, and let us toast to Carménère as we grill a fine summer smorgasbord. A story to whet the appetite, and a tasty pairing to quell it. 

Carménère: The Vinous Road Less Traveled

Carménère’s vinous origins are commonly associated with the famed French wine region of Bordeaux, although DNA tracing suggests its origins may lie in Spain. In the early Nineteenth Century, Carménère was utilized primarily as a blending grape primarily in Graves and the Pessac-Léognan, grown alongside its compatriots Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Carménère and Bordeaux, however, were not a perfect pair. Carménère was finicky in the French climate, which often harbored cold springs and early autumn rains. As a result, the temperamental Carménère had difficulty acclimating, and harvest yields were, at best, consistently inconsistent. When Phylloxera devastated the region in the 1850s, Carménère was conveniently omitted from the replanting strategy. Vignerons had seen enough of the petulant vine, opting instead for greater vineyard coverage of the more amenable Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Citing irreconcilable differences, Bordeaux annulled the acrimonious relationship. Within decades, Carménère was thought to be extinct. Not many tears were shed for poor Carménère.

The Stowaway

But this, quite obviously, is not the end of the Carménère saga. A long, long time ago, in a hemisphere far, far away, South America was experiencing a large influx of French, Italian and Spanish immigrants, carrying in their suitcases the vine cuttings of their native homes. Where Europeans settle, wine inevitably follows. Amongst the collection making its vinous debut in Chile was Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a stowaway, Carménère, that was mislabeled as Merlot. Chilean winemakers, none the wiser, planted Carménère in their fields alongside Merlot and utilized the varietal in their field blends. In its new home in Chile’s Central Valley, boasting a warm, sun-drenched, dry climate and long growing season, Carménère thrived. A true home away from home.

For over 150 years, Carménère lived anonymously in the vineyards of Chile, growing with gusto under the guise of Merlot. Vintners in Chile were, however, beginning to notice its distinguishing characteristics, eventually labeling the grape Merlot Chileno. It was not until 1994 that a French botanist, Jean-Michael Boursiquot, pondered the mysterious Merlot Chileno’s unusually long ripening tendencies, which would be harvested 4-5 weeks after Merlot. His pontifications led to the discovery that up to 50 percent of the Merlot plantings in the region were traceable to Bordeaux’s long-lost outcast, Carménère. Buckle up, Carménère’s comeback tour was about to commence.

Now grown almost exclusively in Chile, Carménère has become an inextricable component of the country’s wine identity and culture. Chile’s climate, terroir and mastery of its winemakers have brought the best out of Carménère, which is now utilized both as a blending grape and a single varietal wine. Carménère is emphatically back in style, enjoying the well-deserved spotlight in its new South American home.

A Summertime Strongman

Although the finicky varietal frustrated French vinters, as a consumer there is much to love when it comes to Carménère. Carménère closely resembles its cousin, Merlot, in body and texture, commonly containing lighter tannin and higher acidity. This combination makes it a great food-pairing companion for a variety of cuisines.  Carménère typically boasts supple red and black berry aromas and flavors of tart raspberry, sour cherry and blackberry. These aromas and flavors are balanced with earthy, herbaceous notes and green peppercorn, rich chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and spice. 

From hearty winter stews to summer barbecues, Carménère is an excellent selection at any time of year. Bet hey, summer is upon us, so let's focus in on that satisfying selection of grilled meats. When it comes to charcoal compadres, Carménère is a summertime strongman.

Carménère pairs well with game meats that have earthy flavors, so after a successful hunting trip (Molokai or Lanai excursion, anyone?), feel free to toss some wild boar or venison on the barbie. Have more common cuts in the fridge, such as chicken, steak, sausage or lamb? Fear not, these are equally palatable with a class of Carménère. Lavish these grilled selections with herb-based sauces or salsas that can complement the herbal characteristics of the wine. One of my favorites is chermoula, the magnificent Moroccan concoction consisting of garlic, cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, capers, anchovies, preserved lemon and olive oil. For a little spice, toss in a chili or two. Don't worry, Carménère can handle the heat. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and serve over chicken, venison, lamb or beef.

For a final recommendation, let's get local. Carménère can be a brilliant Korean barbecue sidekick. The earthy notes and green peppercorn characteristics of Carménère make it an excellent balance for the sweet sauces of Kalbi and Bulgogi. Step aside, Makgeolli, there is a new pairing champion in town.

Carménère is not a grape with ageing potential, and is best consumed within a couple of years of its vintage date. Drink early, drink often.

Unique, food-friendly, complex and bargain priced, Carménère is a tremendously enjoyable wine that beckons wine newbies and experts alike for further exploration. We should all enthusiastically answer the call. While limited quantities are available in Honolulu, Carménère can be found on the back shelves of Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquors