Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Carmenère

CarmenereThe Soundbyte: Carmenère is often called “the lost grape of Bordeaux” and was widely planted in Bordeaux in the years before phylloxera. However, in the 1880’s as phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Europe and all the vines needed to be re-planted, Carmenère resisted grafting and was essentially forgotten.

Many of the original vinifera vines planted in Chile were brought from Bordeaux during the mid-1800s, as phylloxera was ravaging the old world. Along with its better-known cousins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, Carmenère arrived in Chile at the same time.

Carmenère thrived in Chile, where it was often mistaken for Merlot in the vineyard. In fact, much of what was bottled as a particularly spicy style of Chilean Merlot—Merlot Chileno—before 1994 quite possibly contained quite a bit of Carmenère. The mystery was solved in 1994 when Professor John-Michel Boursiquot of the Montpellier School of Oenology noticed the distinctive character of Chilean Merlot and soon confirmed that much of what was considered to be Chilean “Merlot” was actually Carmenère.

In the vineyard, Carmenère is often the last grape to be picked, and it requires a lengthy season to reach full maturity. Therefore, it is not well suited to many parts of Bordeaux—but in the right areas it can produce great wines. Chilean Carmenère is rich in color, redolent of red fruits, spice, and berries, and has softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Many consider Carmenère to be the signature grape of Chile.

Typical Attributes of a Carmenère-based Wine:

  • Rich with dark fruit flavors of ripe berries and plum.
  • grilled steak for carmenre with tomatoesFirm structure, full body and heavy tannins; lush, velvety texture.
  • Deep, dark color.  This is a “big red wine”!
  • Carmenère is distinguished by fruitiness accompanied by the flavors of “spice and smoke”
  • Some experts think Carmenère is a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the grapes do share many qualities
  • Underripe Carmenère, or grapes from a cool growing season, can have a vegetative “green bell pepper” aroma or flavor. Carmenère  takes longer to ripen than other red grapes, so be on the look-out for these flavors.

Typical Aromas of a Carmenère-based Wine:

  • Fruity: Blackberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Currant, Dark Plum, Cherry
  • Spicy: Black Pepper, White Pepper, Dried Herb, Cinnamon, Anise, Vanilla, Licorice
  • Earthy:  Smoke, Wet Earth, Leather, Tobacco, Coffee
  • Oak-Derived:  Oak, Chocolate, Mocha, Cocoa
  • Vegetative:  Green Bell Pepper, Green Olive, Herbal, Lavender

Where The Best Carmenère is Grown:

  • Chile, where vintners have staked a claim on Carmenère as their “signature” grape variety
  • A few wineries in California and Washington State, where it is largely used in Meritage blends.  The Guenoc Winery in Lake Country brought the grape, which had to withstand a three-year quarantine before being planted, to the United States from Chile
  • Italy’s Eastern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, including the Piave DOC, which since 2009 have been allowed to produce a varietally-labeled Carmenère
  • Bordeaux, France; where the grape is grown on a very limited basis, but is still considered part of the Bordeaux Blend. Grande Vidure is a historical synonym sometimes used in Bordeaux. Château Clerc Milon has the largest plantings of Carmenère in the region, but there are still less than ten acres in all of Bordeaux
  • China, which grows a great deal of Carmenère, often under the name Cabernet Gernischt

Grilled spicy steakFood Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Veal, Venison, Pork
  • Poultry when prepared in a rich, hearty manner such as grilled, smoked, or braised…
  • Grilled Foods, Smoked Foods

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Garlic, Onions, Mushrooms
  • Walnuts, Pecans
  • Rosemary, Oregano, Basil, fresh Herbs of all kinds
  • Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Eggplant, Bell Peppers
  • Black Pepper, White Pepper, Green Peppercorns, Spicy flavors
  • Barbeque Flavors, Hearty, highly seasoned foods

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas   missjane@prodigy.net