Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Native of Bordeaux Carménère’s Mom & Dad are Gros Cabernet and Cabernet Franc. From its parents, (especially Cabernet Franc) it inherited the late ripening characteristics, along with the unfortunate tendency to produce green flavors (methoxypyrazine) when unripe.
When Phyloxera hit Bordeaux in the mid 1800’s, many French viticulturists looked for a new place to grow grapes and make wine great again; so Chile (Being Phyloxera-free for ever) was the destination of choice. As a result, cuttings of Carménère, together with Merlot, Carbernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and other Bordeaux grape varieties were planted throughout Chile. But it seems that the local growers lost track of which grape was which between Merlot and Carménère. They could see small differences in the vineyards (mostly field blends at the time), but they thought of it as just a weird mutation or a different clone of Merlot. Soon, nobody talked about Carménère, it was just "Merlot" or "Chilean Merlot".
In the same time, back in Bordeaux, they found a cure for Phyloxera, uprooted sick vines and replanted only their favorite grapes on American rootstock. As a result, Carménère, (which struggled to fully ripen in Bordeaux) was only replanted in a handful of vineyards… it went almost extinct.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that in the vineyards of Viña Carmen-Santa Rita, ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot re-discovered the true identity of Chilean Merlot. Carménère came back to light, became officially recognized and could be labeled as such.
Chilean growers have now separated the early ripener Merlot and late ripener Carménère and are looking for better sites for each. In too warm sites, sugar ripeness in Carménère occurs much earlier than phenolic ripeness. This inevitably leads to unbalance: Picked early, grapes will have the right amount of sugar, but harsh tannins and green flavors. Picked later, grapes will have smooth, ripe tannins, but low acidity and too much sugar.
Luckily, Chile’s geography offers a multitude of options in site selection and blending opportunities. Between “Entre Cordilleras” and “Andes”, Carménère growers and winemakers can strike the right balance between all desired components of the finished wine.
At best, Carménère shows black berry and plum flavors, with a touch of green pepper and spices. The palate is rich, the tannins are soft, and the sweet flavors intermingle with savory and coffee notes to make interestingly complex wines. As a result, it is also a blending partner of choice for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. To learn more about grape varieties, enroll the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines.
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine.New York: Oxford University Press Inc
Viña Santa Rita (2017) 'Carmen celebrates 23 years of the rediscovery of Carménère" Available at https://www.santarita.com/en/news/carmen-celebrates-23-years-of-the-rediscovery-of-carmenere/ (Accessed: 23 November 2020).