A funny thing about today’s non-mainstream varietals is that they almost universally have a great story about them. I’m beginning to think that the lesser known the varietal and the more interesting its story, the better it tastes. Today I’m investigating Chile’s unlikely heroine, Carménère.
Carménère’s story is this: For all of her relative “newness” today, Carménère is believed to be a most ancient grape, possibly the original ancestor to modern Cabernet Sauvignon, or even all of the Bordeaux region’s red varietals. Carménère is also argued to possibly be an ancient Iberian Peninsula grape, Biturica — still a popular blending wine in that area today — and known to the ancient Romans. Perhaps not coincidentally, Biturica is also the old Latin name for Bordeaux. Obviously, France and Carménère go way back.
Carménère was used as a varietal blending grape in red Bordeaux blends for years and years, when this fruitful relationship came to a screeching halt during the 1860s phylloxera epidemic. Because she wouldn’t graft to the otherwise helpful American rootstock that was used to help France recover from this scourge, Carménère was basically abandoned there.
However, luckily some plants were introduced to Chile. It could be that they were taken there by accident, believed to be Merlot vines. It wasn’t until as recently as about 20 years ago that some of these “odd” Merlot vines were correctly identified as Carménère grapes. Well, that explained a lot, like the big difference in the two grapes’ ripening schedules, and why Chilean “Merlot” tasted so different from everyone else’s.
And now we get to Carménère’s taste appeal. She has grown from a mis-identified Merlot to almost becoming Chile’s “national grape.” While it is said that the French have never regretted their decision to simply tear out any remaining Carménère plants, this grape does very well in the sunny, well draining and somewhat protected Chilean valleys. Although similar in color, her flavors are distinct from her close relative, Cabernet Sauvignon, with fewer tannins and more lighter red fruit tones (raspberry, cherry), compared to darker fruits (plum, dark cherry).
Are you a Carménère fan? I’d love to hear your stories.