A new red wine grape always prompts interest and excitement amongst wine connoisseurs but for many red wine drinkers, these new red wine grapes often sneak up on us unnoticed and are discovered accidentally. However, these accidental discoveries can often be fortuitous.
Carménère (or “Carmenere”) is one such red wine grape. Once thought to be a strain of Merlot it has achieved official recognition in recent years and is proving to be a popular grape both as a varietal and as part of a blend.
A couple of centuries ago Carmenere was grown in the Bordeaux region of France alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, many Bordeaux producers considered Carmenere to be as good a red wine grape as Cabernet Sauvignon.
When cuttings of Merlot vines were taken from Bordeaux to Chile in the 19th century the wine makers unwittingly took Carmenere cuttings too. In fact, it is thought that between 60 and 90 per cent of the cuttings could have been Carmenere rather than Merlot.
The mistake was understandable as the Merlot and Carmenere vines look similar, although there are subtle differences if you know what to look for. However, the wine makers in Chile were unaware of the mistake at the time and for many years produced a red wine which they assumed was pure Merlot.
In the meantime, the Bordeaux producers had become frustrated with the unpredictable yields of the Carmenere vines when they were grafted and gradually phased out the red wine grape from Bordeaux blends. However, the Chilean wine makers persevered, despite struggling with fields of what were supposedly the same vines but which ripened at different times – Carmenere grapes ripen around three weeks later than Merlot grapes.
Eventually, in 1996 the Chilean authorities officially recognized that Merlot and Carmenere were different red grape varieties. From 1998 producers have been able to label their red wine as Carmenere and since then it has gradually started to appear on our supermarket and off licence shelves and in the listings of mail order and on line wine merchants.
These days Chile is by far the largest producer of Carmenere red wine. It is thought that there may be some Carmenere vines in northern Italy and possibly in California but there are no more than a handful of Carmenere vines left in Bordeaux. Having said that, there were many cuttings from Bordeaux vines in the 19th century and these cuttings were taken to many different countries.
So what is Carmenere like as a red wine? Is it worthy of official recognition as a red wine varietal?
The greatest problem with Carmenere is that the grape is tricky to grow. It doesn’t like to be watered between winter and harvest time. If it is irrigated or rained on during this period it can give too much emphasis to the grape’s green pepper characteristics. Its growing season is long because of high sugar levels before the tannins start to ripen but if the vineyard gets too hot the alcohol level increases, destroying the overall balance of the resulting red wine.
Despite these difficulties Chilean wine makers have taken Carmenere to their hearts and are learning how to grow and nurture the grape to get the best out of it. At its best, Carmenere is a soft, medium-bodied red wine with an interesting and unusual savoury quality complemented by lots of sweet fruit characteristics resulting from the wine’s low acidity. The fruit flavours should include blackberry and black plum with lots of spice whilst the savoury characteristics should include celery, coffee, grilled meat and soy sauce. With rich, round tannins resulting in a full mouth texture Carmenere can be a joy to drink.
Not only is Carmenere excellent as a varietal, it is one of those red wine grapes which can complement and improve other grapes in a blend. It is often mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing brightness, juicy flavours and a lovely perfume to the blend. It also blends well with Merlot.
There are many producers in Chile exporting Carmenere and Carmenere blends to the international market. Producers to look out for include De Martino, MontGras, Luis Felipe Edwards, Carmen and Casa Lapostolle. Other recommended producers include Casa Silva, a winery which is contributing to a Carmenere clonal research project and Terranoble, a winery which insists on oak barrels for aging its Carmenere.
If you want an affordable supermarket Carmenere Ned Halley’s recommendation in his book “The Best Wines in the Supermarkets 2012” is Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Fairtrade Carmenere which he says has “sleek and supple fruit”. Oz Clarke has several recommendations in his book “250 Best Wines 2012”.
He suggests Morrisons’ own-label NV Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon-Carmenere, Llai Llai Carmenere from Chile’s Maipo Valley which is available from Tesco and Los Nucos Carmenere-Shiraz from Chile’s Rapel Valley which is available from Marks & Spencer and is produced in partnership with Luis Felipe Edwards.
All of these supermarket Carmenere or Carmenere blends cost less than £10.
Image from Wikipedia by Lebowskyclone.