The Best Grape Story of All Time: Carmenère

Part of the reason I love wine is that every grape has a story. Whether it be that the grape has been native to an area for centuries (like Sangiovese in Tuscany), or found to be the love child of some other popular grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon is the illegitimate kid of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), every berry has a legacy. I don’t like to play favorites in wine, but I do have a favorite grape story and that is the story of Carmenère.

Yeah, I know it’s off the beaten track and you may never have heard of it or seen it, but if you start ‘trolling the Chilean aisle you’ll see a bunch of Carmenère on the shelves. It’s become a signature of sorts for that country, so I’ve been sent a ton of it from the Wines of Chile (including the wines that I’ll talk about later and for which I thank the organization for!).

How did this ancient grape, assumed to be the progenitor of Cabernet Franc and therefore Cabernet Sauvignon, that was used in Bordeaux as a blending grape for hundreds of years wind up in Chile? That’s why I love the story. It’s meandering and cool.

Wine dorks who study this stuff believe that Carmenère is originally from Spain, but was brought to Italy by the Romans (who were the disseminators of viticulture to all of Europe), where it was blended with Sangiovese in Tuscany. Through Roman transport, the grape made its way up to the Left Bank of Bordeaux, where it lived fitfully, temperamentally, and as a thorn in the side of growers until a one-two punch of the fungus oidium and the vine mass-murderer phylloxera hit the area in the mid-1800s and killed off most Carmenère vines.

After the disaster that was the phylloxera epidemic, growers had to pick up the pieces. They replanted their faves on pest resistant American rootstock, but Darwinism took its course. Vignerons (as they are called in France) only grafted the vines that were worth growing because they had the strength to survive – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Carmenère really wasn’t replanted. It was assumed extinct, and most growers were excited about that — who needed the headache?

So WOULD have ended the story of Carmenère, but then something kind of weird happened. In the early 1990s, Chile — whose French, Italian, and Spanish immigrants had been making wine derived from European vine cuttings for more than 150 years outside of the capital of Santiago — realized that their Merlot tasted really “distinctive.” I’m sure you can guess why. About 50% of the what was going into Merlot was not a Merlot clone, as winemakers believed, but Carmenère! In 1998, officials finally finished a DNA study and the Chilean government recognized this unique grape.

It’s amazing that the Chileans didn’t discover this sooner. Carmenère has a VERY distinctive flavor. Whereas Merlot is kind of low key and soft, Carmenère tastes like green pepper and has a sharp spiciness that is not really found in Merlot. The grape is named so for its crimson color — it is really dark. It tends to be medium bodied with smoky, spicy, and earthy aromas. It’s no shrinking violet. This wine is bold, best had young, and, frankly, can be a tough wine to drink if it’s not made well.

Given all that, you’ve got to give Chile props for taking this unique grape that they saved from extinction and for making a go at creating a market for it. They’ve never had a problem growing the stuff — isolated from the rest of South America by the Andes to the east and the Atacama Desert to the North, and with sandy soils and low rain — Chile is an unwelcome place for pests and fungus. The delicate grape that was heartache in France is hearty trooper in Chile. And, frankly, in the right hands the wine can be nothing short of spectacular — like Merlot on steroids — but in the wrong hands — blech.

That’s been my problem with Carmenère. I’ve tasted many and I have found two profiles — something approaching nirvana in a rich full wine, and then a mothball-like, sulfur, green pepper mess that reminds me of a fast-food joint’s salad with under-ripe tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and past-its-prime green pepper (and a healthy dose of chemical spray). I’m hoping that Chile will nail the former and eliminate the latter, but it remains to be seen.

Funny enough, the two wines I tasted from the same producer reflected the two styles above. I hate to say that price is an indicator of quality, but here there was dramatic difference between these wines and $10 separating their price points. Both of these wines come from Viñas Montes. Started in 1987, the company is a big player in Chilean wine, importing to 75 countries around the world.

Wine 1: Montes Alpha
Where It’s From:Colchagua Valley, Chile
The Grapes: 90% Carmenère, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Vintage: 2007
Price: $17.99

Color: This wine is crimson. It was nearly opaque and very inky, I expected lots of flavor and low acidity due to its more purple color.

Smell: This was exactly the style of Carmenère I don’t like. It smelled like vodka and green peppers. Even after decanting and drinking the next night, which I find is great for smoothing the edges of Carmenère, a real vegetal note dominated, with some smoky and plum tones. I am really sensitive to the green pepper smell, and I just couldn’t get past it here.

Taste: The taste was similar to the nose. Again — the green pepper dominated the wine with a bit of plum and vanilla from the oak aging. The wine had pretty astringent tannins and a very hot quality — the alcohol burned my esophagus going down. The plum/blueberry/cinnamon/vanilla bean finish redeemed the wine slightly, but the green pepper notes just killed it for me.

Drink or Down the Sink?: I’m voting down the sink on this. We didn’t finish the bottle because it just wasn’t that intriguing. For $15, you can get a great Malbec, Shiraz, or a decent Cabernet. Skip this one.

Wine 2: Purple Angel by Montes (before I review this — we opened this one night and drank it the next — it needed to mellow. I know it’s a pain, but it’s worth the effort)
Where It’s From: Colchagua Valley, Chile
The Grapes: 92% Carmenère, 8% Petit Verdot
Vintage: 2006
Price: $54.99

Color: If Carmenère means crimson, then this wine lived up to the name. It’s so purple it’s almost black with a light, watery maroon rim. The wine stains the glass when you swirl it and the legs (the wine as it separates into water and alcohol — the legs are the alcohol dripping down the side) were gloppy — this wine has 14.5% alcohol and it showed.

Smell: I like this wine as much as I disliked the Montes Alpha! Rich plum pie (plums, cinnamon, and a TON of nutmeg) dominated the nose with a touch of black pepper. The wine’s prodigious alcohol made my nose tingle — I even sneezed once from it. There was a touch of green pepper on the nose, but nothing like the Montes Alpha or other Carmenères I’ve had.

Taste: The first impression was plum and dark raspberry with mint, oregano, and nutmeg. There was a chocolate covered cherry quality — rich and soft and a little bitter, like dark chocolate. The wine had a wet earth flavor. It kind of smelled like a raspberry briar, if you’ve ever smelled that — kind of wild and fruity. The mouth-drying tannin was prominent but totally balanced. It was similar to a high quality Zinfandel. The wine was aged for 18 months in French and American oak. Usually American oak is looked down on for it’s very strong character, but I think in this case it may have helped temper the wine and added more chocolatey, minty flavors that are highly desirable. This wine is what I think all Carmenère should taste like.

Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink. I guess in this line of wines price does count, although that is not always the case with Carmenère I have to admit that I was a bit put off by the huge, heavy bottle (sometimes wineries use heavy bottles for cheap stuff to make it seem better so I’m wary of the ploy) but the wine delivered on quality tenfold. I would drink this again and it confirms for me that Carmenère if from the right region and in the hands of the right winemaker has a very bright future and could be Chile’s big differentiator moving forward.

How to Shop For a Wine Similar To The Purple Angel: I wish I could tell you a magic bullet for finding Carmenère that tastes like the Purple Angel and not like the Montes Alpha. A few months back I did a tasting with the Wines of Chile and tasted 8 Carmenères in a row all at different price points. The only common thread I found was that the wines I liked best were from the Colchagua Valley as opposed to other places. Further, I think the addition of American Oak to the French oak in aging helps mellow the wine. You can look for that on the back label or on the internet and hopefully that will help you find great wines too. That said, you may need to try a few different producers before you have the wine. Once you find a good one, take note — it can be your touch point after you’ve tried a few of these and are ready to throw in the towel on the variety altogether!

I’d love to hear from you! Let me know your thoughts!

  • Anonymous

    One winery that I found that had excellent Carmeneres is ARBOLEDA 2007 This wine had a velvet feel in your mouth with strong cherry and smoky flavors mixed with rich chocolate. I have been in love with these wine ever since.

  • Thanks for the comment! That’s great to know. I am always looking for new ones! Like I said, when they are good, they are great, but when they are bad…urgh!

    Looking forward to building a list of standbys and this will definitely be on the list to try!

    Take care and thanks for reading!
    Elizabeth

  • I love the story of Carmenere, too — I’m more partial to the eastern side of the Andes, and I find it fascinating that both Argentina and Chile have been able to take lesser Bordeaux grapes and turned them into varietals uniquely their own.

    In regards to Carmenere, you’ve made a great point about its varying quality. I think it’s been difficult to learn the best ways to turn traditionally blending grapes into stand-alone, stellar varietals.

  • Jolan,

    Thanks for your comment. Great points about how Argentina and Chile have put their own spin on Bordeaux. I suppose we can say the same for California/Chile with Cabernet Sauvignon since that grape has always been blended with others too!

    Your point raises the question — why did winemakers remove the “hedge” they have in Europe? If you are doing a standalone wine, it’s much riskier than creating a blend. If the vintage is poor for that grape, you’re out of luck.

    When single variety wines are made, they can be outstanding. In the case of Chile and Argentina, I think the latter took the better bet! Hopefully with time, Carmenere will rise to the occasion too.

    Thanks for your great thoughts!
    Elizabeth

  • Just had this wine and was also disappointed. I don’t mind bell pepper and the levels here didn’t bother me. But the oak seemed way out of balance. This was all ripe fruit and oak. Hollow in the middle, no finish. What I’d call spoofy.

  • Yeah, Carmenere is very unpredictable! The Purple Angel was really great, but the lower tier was no good for me either, as you can tell! Oh well, the hunt for great, affordable Carmenere continues.

    I love wine. It’s never a yawn!

    Thanks for the comment,
    Elizabeth

  • Thanks for the story – as a budding/novice oenophile I love hearing about where some of my favorite wines came from! I stumbled across Carmenere by buying a couple of bottles of 120 Carmenere 2009 (Santa Rita, Chile) at the BevMo! $.05 wine sale (you know, buy a bottle, get a second for $.05). Frankly, I really like the wine and have since bought more to share with friends. It’s got a great feel, with deep fruit flavor (cherry, mostly), and a little spice.

    Thanks!
    Dennis

  • Dennis,

    Thanks so much for your comment! It’s awesome to try new stuff…especially when you can get it from the nickel bin! Carmenere for me is so hit or miss, but when it’s a hit it is AWESOME. I’m hoping there will be major strides in quality as Chile tries to stake it’s claim on the grape (to keep up with it’s neighbor’s hold on the other Bordeaux variety, Malbec!).

    I think it’s great that you’re a novice and you’re not afraid to try new stuff or take chances. It’s the best way to get up to speed on wine — you’ve got to drink a lot of it to become experienced. And these days you don’t have to spend a ton to get amazing stuff.

    Have you tried Chilean Sauvignon Blanc? It’s also incredible and a great value!

    Take care and thanks so much for writing,
    Elizabeth

  • Dale G

    Well, I find the comments, and the article, fascinating. I have loved carmenere since I first bought a bottle; I have never had a bad bottle of carmenere; I have never spent $50 on any bottle of wine, however. I have had carmenere from Concha y Toro (Casillero del Diablo): very good. From “The 120”: excellent. It is always deep, rich, dusky and seductive. All the reasons I have always liked Cabernet, are doubled in Carmenere. I have even bought “OOPS!” carmenere. At kess than $10 a bottle, it too is good. Not outstanding, but good. I usually have to spend $20 for an “outstanding” bottle of wine.

  • Hi Dale,

    So glad you liked the article. I hope you never have a bad one, but now you know what it could be like if it’s not good.

    Chile is certainly doing great things and they are improving all the time. I’m a little wary, but I should do another roundup and see how things have changed. I wish there were more selection though – most times it’s just the Casillero del Diablo and I find that one good but not too interesting.

    Thanks for reading and writing!

    Best regards,
    Elizabeth

  • Great article! One of my favourite things about living in Chile is the endless supply of cheap and delicious camenére. I find the Chileans tend to keep the best for themselves – locally you can definitely find a good bottle for the equivalent of between $10-20.

    Regards,
    Jemma
    http://www.unjemployed.wordpress.com

    • Elizabeth Schneider

      Hi Jemma,

      Sounds like a good reason for me to make to Chile! I know that in good hands Carmenere can shine — I’ve tasted the great stuff before. It’s just that too often, what hits our shores is like burnt rubber and carnations! I hope producers will start to realize what a gem they have if they treat the grapes right. Sounds like they know this on home turf, now they just need to get some to the US!!!

      Drink a bottle for me and thanks for writing!
      Elizabeth

  • Theo

    Had the purple angle!! Awesome wine!!

  • I won a bottle of Carmenere at a wine tasting at a local grocery.
    It was Lapostolle Cuvée’ Alexandre from Apalta Vineyard, Colchagua Valley, 2010 vintage. It was truly nectar of the gods!!! I had never heard of this wine but since then, it’s my only red. Try it and let me know .