Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Carmenère

CarmenereThe Soundbyte: Carmenère is often called “the lost grape of Bordeaux” and was part of the original Bordeaux blend.  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 lost. 

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” 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 Merlots from Chile and soon discovered that much of what was considered to be Chilean “Merlot” was actually Carmenère—and not a local clone of Merlot, as had been believed.

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 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. Chile is currently the only country growing Carmenère on a wide basis. 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 taste vegetative, like green bell peppers. 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. Chile is currently the only country that grows Carmenère on a widespread, commercial basis.
  • 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 has 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. Chateau Clerc Milon has the largest plantings of Carmenère in the region, but there are still less than ten acres in all of Bordeaux.

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

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Zinfandel

Zinfandel – The Soundbyte:

Zinfandel is known as “California’s Mystery Grape” and its roots are somewhat in question.  An old-fashioned legend says that Zinfandel vines of the “vitis vinifera” species native to Europe were growing happily in California before European settlement of the New World.  This was fun to believe for a while, but today we have at least an inkling of what really happened.  Most likely, today’s Zinfandel traveled from Croatia to Vienna during the Habsburg Monarchy’s rule over Croatia.  Some cuttings ended up in the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, and from there were sent to a horticulturist in Long Island, who sent some vines out to Califoria, where Italian immigrants working the gold rush appreciated the grape’s sturdy, robust style and planted them with enthusiasm, only to abandon their vineyards when the gold rush fizzled out.  These vineyards, and their mystery grapes, were then rediscovered years later with the post-prohibition wave of California winemakers. Quite a story, right?

DNA fingerprinting has revealed that today’s Zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Crljenak Kaštelanski grape of Croatia  and is most likley the parent of the rather well-known Croatian grape known as Plavac Mali, although some people declare that Plavac Mali and Zinfandel are the same grape.  Zinfandel is also well known for being either identical or very closely related to the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in Puglia. Perhaps now the honorary title of “California’s Mystery Grape” makes sense.  Wherever it came from and whatever you call it, Zinfandel has proved itself as a hardworking, heat-seeking, robust grape. 

 Typical Attributes of a Zinfandel Based Wine:

    • Fruit-forward,  intense fruit flavors…the aromas and flavors of blackberry, cherry and plum are quite recognizable. 
    • In my wine tastings I generally introduce Zin as “Blackberry/Black Pepper/Black Licorice.”  It’s a pretty good Zin cliché.
    • Medium to high alcohol…sometimes 15% or more.
    • Medium to full  body; more likley towards the full.
    • Medium to high tannin combined with lively acidity.  Warm weather growing areas can mellow the tannins to the velvety type, but they remain quite high.
    • Red Zinfandel’s spice, fruit, and acidity make it a very food friendly wine.
    • Yes….the  Zinfandel grape can be made in the “White Zinfandel” style.  To make white zinfandel, the wine is allowed to ferment on the intensely colored red grape skins for a day or  two, just until the juice turns a light pink color.  At this time, the juice is pressed off  the grape skins while the fermentation process finishes.  While it is true that your Mama’s White Zinfandel most likely had a touch of residual sugar and this style remains popular today, Zinfandel is also made into crisp, dry, serious rosé.
    • Late harvest Zinfandel is often made into a luscious, complex dessert wine; one of my favorites is “Zinnie de Potelle” by Chateau Potelle.
    • Some winemakers freeze their late harvest (or regular harvest) Zinfandel grapes to make to make “ice wine-style” dessert wines, often with cute-cute-cute names such as “Fro-Zin”.

Typical Aromas of a Zinfandel-Based Wine:

  • Fruity
    • Blackberry, Blackberry  Jam, Boysenberry, Boysenberry Jam, Raspberry, Raspberry Jam, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Pomegranate, Raisin, Prune
  • Spicy
    • Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg, Allspice, Anise, Licorice, Chocolate
  • Wood-derived:
    • Oak, Vanilla
  • Sometimes:
    • Maple, Mushroom, Mint, Mineral

Where The Best Zinfandel is Grown:

  • California, especially SonomaValley, Amador County, the Sierra Foothills, and Lodi. 
  • The south of Italy, where it goes by the name “Primitivo”.
  • Croatia, where it is sometimes called “plavac mali, ” although now it is assumed that plavac mali is a close relative of Zinfandel, but not exactly Zinfandel.  (See “the mystery”, above.)
  • The Texas High Plains AVA in Texas.  Dallas winemaker Benjamin Calais of Calais Winery has just released “Tailleur 2010”, a delicious 75% Zinfandel – 25% Sangiovese blend from 100% High Plains fruit.
  • While California remains  Zinfandel’s favorite adopted home, it is having some success in South Africa,  South America, and Australia.   

Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Venison, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Sausage

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Spicy Foods
  • Spicy, Slightly Sweet Foods like Barbeque Sauce or Hoisin Sauce.
  • Tex-Mex Flavors
  • Grilled Flavors, Smoky Flavors
  • Blue Cheese Bacon Cheeseburgers
  • Burgers with Caramelized Onions
  • Any type of burgers (even turkey burgers)
  • Sausage and Peppers
  • Eggplant, Mushrooms, Black Beans
  • Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes
  • Mint, Rosemary, Oregano 
  • Thyme, Cumin, Blackening Spices
  • Onions, Shallots
  • Walnuts, Pecans, Hazelnuts
  • Chocolate – which many people love, but the Bubbly Professor recommends you stick to the sweet versions of Zin for dessert.