Friday, March 9, 2012

Wine 101: Carmine

We recently learned that one of the founders of the post-Prohibition east coast wine industry was Philip Wagner, founder of Boordy Vineyards. Wagner and his wife Jocelyn began planting grape vines in the early 1930's specializing in French Hybrids and propagated these to vineyards throughout the East and Midwest. "Vidal Blanc, for example, was first found by the Wagners in a backyard vineyard in Poitier, France, a town southwest of Paris about half way to Bordeaux, and cuttings were 'smuggled' into the U.S. wrapped in a damp towel in Jocelyn’s purse." Other grapes the Wagners championed were Chambourcin and Baco Noir.

Apparently these grapes were not enough. Rumor has it that Wagner contacted Dr. Harold Olmos, of UC-Davis, to develop a tannic, "hearty grape that could translate into a marketable wine for colder climates". After 20 years of cross breeding, Olmos finally publicized this cold climate grape: Carmine - a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, and Merlot. What? A cross of three grapes. How is that possible? Well, with a lot of time and patience. First, Olmos crossed Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignane. The progeny was then crossed with Merlot - so in reality Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignane are the grandparents. The result is a late budding and ripening grape, slightly larger than Cabernet Sauvignon, with loose clusters. Perfect for most American wine growing regions. Yet, despite Olmos' efforts, Carmine never really gained traction. Today, the grape is grown in only a handful of vineyards in the United States.

The largest grower is perhaps Kramer Vineyards, located in Gaston, Oregon. Trudy Kramer related to us why Carmine.
"Every wine has a story. We were amateur winemakers and found out about Jim Leyden at Courting Hill Vineyard who had a nice selection of different varieties. So it was one place to go many times throughout the vintage to pick grapes to make our wine. One grape he had was Carmine. He had brought it into the state—not sure if it was legal or not. But he was intrigued with it and was trying to get people to plant it. When he found out that we were planting, he talked Keith into planting it, but I wasn’t sold on it. My take on it was that none of the grapes it was from, Cabernet, Carignane, or Merlot, did well in the Willamette Valley so why would we even think of planting it? So he pleaded with me and I said, “So, if it doesn’t sell, out it goes!” Deer were ravaging it for a few years until Keith finally put a good deer fence up so we make our first in 1998. It wasn’t until 2000 that we figured out how to craft a good wine out of the grape. The issue is ripening and the presence of the green bell pepper notes that I don’t like at all. Carmine was supposed to be for the “cool” central California coast. We are a lot cooler than the Central California Coast! But Jim knew they were growing it successfully in New York and Pennsylvania in cooler regions there. People made regular red wine, rose, and sparkling out of it."
And Kramer has experienced how versatile the grape is - from crafting a big red tannic wine to a soft rose.
"When have a vintage warm enough to give us riper flavors, then we make a red wine ferment in bins, press out before fermentation is totally done, settle, and put into barrels to finish fermentation. We also inoculate with malolactic. The acids are pretty high so we often have to adjust those in the beginning. Sugars are low so we have to add that every vintage. In 2010, the fruit had a lot of unripe flavors in the skins, just green as it could be. Since it was the latest vintage ever, we decided to wait into November and pick it as late as we could. We took a sample of the juice to the lab and we just couldn’t see how it could be made into a red wine. As we were reading the lab report, Kim tweeted about our dilemma on-line. A local wine writer suggested doing a rose. So she runs out and takes a juice sample and tastes it. Just delicious with no green! We were shocked. So two days after harvest, we pressed it out for a rose. The color was unbelievable—so dark it almost looked like a Pinot Noir. Turned out just great! In 2011, it was even later, so we again decided from the start to do a rose again, but this time it was very cold outside and we had to wait until day 5 to press because the color and flavors weren’t right. This wine has not yet been bottled, but it's even better than 2010! So is it appropriate for the climate? Probably not., but with inventive winemaking, cluster thinning, late picking, and attention to detail, we can make a very good wine out of it."
Educated consumers is an issue with Carmine, because, let's face it, how many of us wine geeks has heard of it. Not us until a couple weeks back. Here's Kramer again relating their experience.
"Yes, we do have to educate people who are new to our winery. We do have a following for it now which is why we have planted more. It is so different from Pinot Noir and people are curious about it. They often confuse it with Carmenere. Dr. Olmos is rolling in his grave! The work on it was done at UC Davis back in the 1950’s and only a few California vineyards have it. It is nice to have something unique for people to taste when they visit us."
So there you have it. A relatively new wine grape that perhaps you will be able to experience one day. Here is a list of the other Carmine producers that we are aware:
  1. Winemakermag
  2. UC-Davis
  3. Boordy Vineyards


David said...

Interesting! I think I heard reference to Carmine during the #PNW WineChat, but not before that. Interesting to hear it's also found in KY, I spent some time there.

Wine About Virginia said...

The produce Carmine at Wisteria Farm & Winery located near Luray, VA

Todd M. Godbout said...

Yes David, the #winechat on the #pnw is where I first learned about the grape. Had to start researching the next day.

Todd M. Godbout said...

Thanks for the information Kurt; I will update the list. Cheers

Jessica said...

Hi! Thought I'd let you know that Big White House and John Evan Cellars in Livermore, CA and Ripken Vineyards in Lodi, CA both have a Carmine.

Unknown said...

Trudy is much too modest. Their Carmine is a wonderfully complex and rich red and she does magic with it. In my opinion, it has more character and panache than many Oregon Pinots. As a big red, it can stand up there with the best.