Friday, March 23, 2012

Wine 101: Carmenère

Most of you are probably already aware of the phylloxera epidemic that ransacked Europe vineyards starting in 1867. One Bordeaux grape, Carmenère was particularly susceptible to the louse. The epidemic was finally alleviated when viniferia vines were grafted to phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Once again Carmenère suffered because the vine didn't take to the new grafts and growers felt the grape was too difficult even when conditions were favorable. Thus Carmenère was eventually replaced with more familiar vines, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and was soon thought to be extinct. Once a major player in Médoc and Graves and then least until 1994. That is when Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot from the Montpellier's school of Oenology conducted DNA analyze and determined that a Chilean Merlot clone was actually Carmenère. How was that possible?

Before the phylloxera epidemic, Chilean vignerons had been importing the vines from France thinking they were receiving Merlot grapes or a clone of Merlot. Apparently, their leaves are very similar. They had no clue it was a distinct grape variety. And in fact, it was a general practice to combine the Merlot grapes and this "clone" which lead Chilean Merlot to differ from Merlot wines produced elsewhere. Then came Professor Boursiquot's DNA analysis and a few years later Carmenère was categorized as a distinct Chilean grape variety. And today, Carmenère is Chile’s signature grape.

Carmenère is dark-skinned grape variety and requires a long growing season to reach its prime potential. These conditions can be found in the Colchagua Valley in Chile, the southernmost portion of the Rapel Valley - and located about 80 miles southwest of Santiago. The Colchagua Valley was named 2005 Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast and the warm Mediterranean climate has been compared to Napa Valley. Humidity is low, frost is unknown, and breezes from the Pacific cool the valley at night creating a potential 40°F diurnal temperature variation. A perfect vine growing environment; particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon (11,186 hectares; but Carmenère is well represented at 2,344 hectares.

The grape is also gaining traction in other regions. It has returned home to Bordeaux and crossed into Italy where it owes its existence to a similar story. Italian growers that were importing Cabernet Franc from France realized these grapes differed with traditional Cabernet Franc in many aspects. Yes, it was Carmenère. The grape has become so popular in Italy that it is now legal to include Carmenère in DOC wines. It's also been planted in Australia and New Zealand (once again masquerading as Cabernet Franc) and has found a home in a few vineyards in the United States. One of these is Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Washington. Winemaker Casey McClellan explains why:
It has a unique sensory profile that runs to red raspberry, dried herb and white pepper in good years. Adds to complexity in blends too.

We use it in blends more often than as a 100% varietal, but I will have released three vintages varietally. French Oak 30-40% new. 18 months or so in cellar. Nice, medium bodied red that is more dynamic than Merlot but not as heavy as Cabernet.

This is still a niche varietal that arouses interest and curiosity. It does require education of the customer, but we are not thinking of getting into Carmenère in a big way…just something fun to show people that is new and rare.
Want to know what to expect with a Carmenère wine? Our friend, Todd Trzaskos from Vermont Wine Media, is a student of Chilean wines and explains, "Carmenère has the fruit of Merlot but plummier, tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, but softer. I'll drink to that.
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