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Carmenère on the Rise
By Michael Franz
Sep 24, 2013
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Vines have been cultivated for winemaking for thousands of years, so we've already identified all of the world's potentially great grape varieties, right?

Wrong.  Way wrong, and I'll bet that there are at least a dozen grapes that will be regarded as top-tier cultivars a century from now that are, today, virtually unknown.
If this sounds implausible to you, you might reflect that Spain's Albariño and Argentina's Malbec--now considered genuinely great wines--were barely up on anyone's radar in the late 1990s.  And if you're still not persuaded, I've got another fascinating case in point for you:  Carmenère from Chile.

I have been tracking Carmenère's progress for nearly 20 years now, and went on record predicting its inevitable greatness in 2003.  Earlier this year, I had occasion to reconsider Carmenère's prospects when speaking on a panel at TexSom, an extremely impressive conference co-organized by WRO’s James Tidwell MS.  In my panel presentation, I tried to stick up for Pinotage (since someone had to…) but was eager to make a case for Carmenère, which I believe is both misunderstood and under-appreciated.

I’ll make my case for Carmenère below, but first, it is important to consider the remarkable sequence of events in Carmenère's loss, recovery, and resurgence as one of the world's most noble varieties.

The Carmenère grape is hardly new, though it was extremely obscure before being rediscovered less than a decade ago.  Botanically, it is a naturally arisen cross (meaning, not contrived in a lab) between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, a variety that is no longer planted.  It is also closely related to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which helps to explain why it was widely planted in Bordeaux in the early 18th century, particularly in the Medoc.  Along with Cabernet Franc, which was more prominent then than now, Carmenère was credited with establishing the reputations of some of the Medoc's best estates.

The variety certainly has deeper origins, but they are essentially shrouded in the mists of the past.  However, one interesting fact is that significant numbers of Carmenère vines can still be found in northeastern Italy.  Some vintners there have told me that they believe they were initially brought into Europe, during the days of the Roman Empire, by Centurions returning from present-day Iraq, and planted on estates granted by the state to retiring warriors.  If this scenario is true, one would assume that the vines performed well and were then transported to Roman settlements in France’s Gironde region.  We can’t know how they got there, but they most certainly arrived in the Gironde somehow, and did very well once planted.

Ultimately, however, Carmenère fell into disfavor with vignerons because of its tendency to coulure, a problem resulting in the loss of berries shortly after flowering in the early portion of the growing season.  Too often, excessive coulure reduced the yield of Carmenère vines to levels that proved intolerable to growers, many of whom were already replacing it with other grapes when phylloxera infestation devastated Bordeaux's vineyards late in the 19th century.

When replanting began, financially distressed growers could not afford to gamble with varieties that wouldn't produce consistent crops, and Carmenère was spurned in favor of others.  To this day, there are no commercially significant plantings of Carmenère in Bordeaux, though a few producers are now planting it again (largely due to the promise shown by the variety in Chile).

The grape avoided extinction late in the 19th century by--quite literally--jumping a ship for the New World shortly before the phylloxera crisis hit France.  When vineyards were established in Chile between 1850 and 1870, much of the plant material was imported from Bordeaux, and Carmenère was included.  Lots of it was planted, and the vines did well in the climatic conditions of central Chile, but over time its distinct identity was lost.

Vineyard layouts and planting records were not particularly systematic during the 19th century in most countries, and Chile was no exception.  Since Carmenère slipped into global obscurity after its removal from Bordeaux, it is not surprising that Chilean vintners lost the connection between the vine and its name.

Most Chilean growers mistook it for Merlot, or more precisely for an unusual clone of Merlot.  Carmenère actually has more in common with Cabernet Franc (for which it was widely mistaken in northern Italy), but Franc was extremely rare in Chile and therefore not a candidate for confusion.

Because Carmenère is really quite distinctive as a plant, as a grape and as a wine, it was never thought simply identical to Merlot.  Carmenère's leaves are clearly different than those of Merlot vines, and they turn bright red in autumn, so everybody knew that they were looking at something other than run-of-the-mill Merlot when encountering it in vineyards.  Eventually, it came to be called "Merlot selection" or “Merlot Chileno” or "Merlot Peumal," a geographic reference to a valley south of Santiago where lots of Carmenère was grown.

The process leading to re-identification was triggered by the red wine boom of the early 1990s.  Novice wine drinkers turning to reds tended to prefer wines with less hardness and tannin than they found in Cabernet Sauvignon, and thus Merlot became the grape of the moment.  Chilean producers expanded plantings of Merlot to meet the rising demand, and much of this was done with cuttings from their own vineyards.

As this effort was underway, French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot was brought to Chile as a consultant, and it was he who recognized Carmenère for what it truly was.  Boursiquot's identification was confirmed by DNA profiling (which works on material from any living being, plants included) in 1997.  The following year Carmenère was officially recognized as a distinct variety by the Chilean Department of Agriculture.

This development enabled Chilean vintners to bottle wines under the Carmenère name, which in turn led to increased attention to how it could best be handled in vineyards and wineries.  It is now understood that Carmenère is extremely slow to ripen, and that it must be picked not with the early-ripening Merlot but, rather, even later than the late- ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

Much is still being learned as Carmenère's performance is being fine-tuned in Chile.  Ignacio Recabarren, who makes what is probably the world's best Carmenère for Concha y Toro ("Carmin de Puemo,” which is certainly the most expensive) reports that great strides have been achieved by getting it planted in optimal soils (which should neither be too rich nor too poor), training the vines properly (vertical shoot positioning, or "VSP" seems most promising) and monitoring the ripening process.  Ripening must be thorough to avoid weedy, vegetal or minty aromas, yet the ripening must occur relatively slowly to keep the grape's juice in balance so that it doesn't need to be aggressively acidified during the vinification process.

It is not surprising that 15 years or so has been required to show Carmenère's full potential, as literally dozens of variables play a role in the equation yielding a finished wine.  Indeed, it is far more surprising that Carmenère has gotten so good so quickly than that this has taken as long as it has.  When I visited Chile for the third time in March of 2003, my tastings persuaded me that greatness was assured for the grape as a lead player.  Interestingly, however, Recabarren was still on the fence at that point, and he confided that he wasn't sure that Carmenère wouldn't end up as an important blending component rather than a source for great varietal wine.

That difference in our predictions has much less to do with me being ahead of the game than with Recabarren's careful circumspection as a technician.  Although he is very methodical about his craft, he is highly energetic and enthusiastic as a person, and when I saw him last in 2006, his enthusiastic side had clearly won out.  Recabarren now shows no reservations regarding Carmenère's greatness, and one taste of"Carmin de Puemo” will show you why that is the case.  Other outstanding examples include Montes’ “Purple Angel,” Santa Rita’s “Pehuén,” Araucano’s “Alka,” De Martino’s “Armida” and “Alto de Piedras.”  All of these are very high-end wines, but if you’re hesitant to take the plunge with an expensive Carmenère and would prefer to stick a toe into the water for $16 - $20, two excellent wines to try are the Carmenère from Maquis and the Reserva bottling from Araucano.