Discovering carmenere, Chile’s ‘pinotage’

Date posted:
June 5, 2012

As you may know, I’m just back from a trip to Chile where I spent a week traveling around much of the country in search of great wines, writes Gregory Dal Piaz from the USA. While Chile’s wine scene is complex, with great wines from many of the major varieties, I was most interested in their own vinous treasure. Or should I say the vinous treasure I was aware of.

Of course I’m talking about carmenere, though time may prove that Chile’s old vine carignan and pais grapes are equally as important. For today, neither has the volume to make much of a dent in the consciousness of wine drinkers outside of the country. Carmenere, on the other hand, is a fairly commonly planted grape and one that has all the right things going for it.

Once known as “Chilean Merlot,” and responsible for some pretty disappointing merlot when you think of it, carmenere was only identified as such in 1994. Before that it was assumed to be a late ripening clone of merlot. When it was interspersed with real merlot, it had a profound impact on what ended up in the bottle.


Carmenere is a refugee from Bordeaux, brought to Chile long ago, so its lineage cannot be traced. What we historically know of carmenere in the past comes mostly from Bordeaux where it was a valued component in the blends of many Chateaux, contributing aromas and richness to wines. It was also a temperamental grape, rarely ripening fully in the cool, damp climate of Bordeaux and suffering from multiple maladies that made getting a useable crop a risky proposition.

Even when the grapes came in healthy, they still posed a challenge to growers in Bordeaux. Unusually rich in pyrazines and green tannins, carmenere tends to produce tough wines with pronounced green pepper, herbal aromas and flavors when not fully ripened. In order to temper these traits, the vines require a long, warm, sunny growing season, something that Bordeaux rarely has, but Chile is blessed with regularly.

After the phylloxera epidemic swept through Bordeaux in the late 19th century, few growers thought that adding carmenere back to the vineyard was worth the effort. The grape faded into obscurity until genetic testing revealed that it had been living happily in Chile the whole time.


In Chile the sun is abundant, temperatures are warm during the summer days yet cool at night. With the addition of modest rainfall, Chile has proven to be the ideal place for carmenere, though many people might argue with that statement. You see, there is a bit of a battle going on for the soul of carmenere with people on one side of the style spectrum saying that green is bad and needs to be reduced or eliminated, as many happily do in California with cabernet, a distant cousin of this Chilean beauty.

On the other side of the battle line are those producers who prefer to see some green in their carmenere wines, believing that it is an intrinsic element of the grape and a worthy expression of it at that.

I tend to fall in line with these producers, to a point. Of course I want some fruit in my wine, but at the same time the complexity imparted by the lovely herbaceous and spicy notes of just ripe carmenere is both increasingly rare in today’s marketplace and a delightful accompaniment to a broad range of dishes. Even beyond the flavor battle there is a compelling reason to preserve some of the green character of carmenere: freshness.

The way to reduce the greenness of carmenere is through ripeness; either through exposing the grape clusters to light, which stimulates the production of sugars and fruit flavors while degrading pyrazines, or through later harvest, which achieves the same ends. Both techniques also tend to produce wines that are chunkier than their green cousins and less tannic.

Carmenere is not a terribly tannic wine. One of its most appealing attributes, in fact, is its soft yet present tannin that manages to lurk beneath the fruit surface in the wine. Pair these brisk little tannins with the lovely middle weight that many of the wines attain and you have a remarkably friendly and eminently drinkable wine, with a truly appealing mouth feel. Get it nice and ripe and you end up with something softer and plumper, and certainly less interesting.

So now you know what I want my carmenere to be like. I tasted about two dozen examples while in Chile and truth be told, there wasn’t a dud among them. Yes, some were too plump for my palate, but they all were well made and certainly helped me to better understand this lovely grape.

In addition to the classic leafy, green pepper and green tomato notes that many wines exhibited, I found a really intriguing orange oil note in several of the wines, along with plenty of rich yet not weighty black fruits, tobacco, peppercorns and a generally well judged use of oak.

These are wines that love food - steaks grilled over grapevines for example, or a nice rabbit stew simmered with olives and herbs. They are medium weight wines but have something innately hearty about them and enough complexity and depth to take on fairly rich and intensely seasoned foods. All things being equal, I would love to pair carmenere with my favorite recipe for lamb ribs seasoned with herbs, allspice and orange peel, then grilled over a mesquite fire. That sounds like the perfect way to get to know carmenere ever more intimately.

Incidentally, carmenere gets its name from the brilliantly carmine red that the vine’s leaves turn each fall. It’s kind of ironic that a grape prone to green flavors can present such red foliage. It’s also kind of surprising that the Chileans didn’t recognize carmenere as being distinct from merlot much earlier because of its brilliant fall foliage. Maybe they were just trying to keep the wines for themselves!

(Source: SNOOTH)




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