Producer: Casa Silva
Region: Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley, Chile
Tasting Notes: Tobacco, tar, leather, sour cherry, plum, bell pepper, coffee, chocolate
Pairings: Grilled meats (e.g., chicken, sausage, steak, lamb) with herb-based sauces, salsas and chermoula; game meat with earthy flavors, such as rabbit, venison and wild bore
Price (approximately): $16
Ever heard of Carménère? It is a much lesser-known grape than its distant cousins, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but it shares a similarly delightful profile. 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.
For this wine, fruit takes a back seat in the aromatics, which are driven by tobacco, tar, leather, bell pepper, green peppercorn, coffee, and chocolate. Darker fruit joins the party on the palate, with sour cherry, blackberry and plum, balanced with rich chocolate, coffee, earthiness, vanilla, and spice.
Carménère closely resembles 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 is an excellent selection for grilled meats (e.g., chicken, steak, sausage and lamb) with herb-based sauces, salsas and chermoula that can complement the herbal characteristics of the wine. Carménère also pairs well with game meats that have earthy flavors, such as rabbit, wild boar and venison. Finally, want a unique, versatile wine that will draw some attention and conversation around the Thanksgiving table? Try Carménère!
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.
In Honolulu, find this wine at Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquors.
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 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.
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 a surprising 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 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. 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.