We’ve all heard of the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and many others. But, what about Carménère? What is so unique about this grape variety that is widely planted in Chile?
Carménère (“car-men-nair”) is a medium-bodied red wine originated from the Bordeaux region of France. Before the 1870s, Carménère was a prevalent blending grape in Bordeaux, found mostly in Graves and the Pessac-Léognan appellations. However, due to the phylloxera infestation, nearly all the Carménère vines – along with most of the vineyards in Bordeaux – were wiped out. When vignerons in Bordeaux replanted however, they opted to plant the easier-to-grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot instead. Carménère is nearly extinct in its homeland, but is the 5th most important grape of Chile (thanks to the the European winemakers that migrated to Chile around 1850, and brought along with them a few strains of Carménère).
Is Carménère same as Merlot?
Nope! Many people have thought that Carménère is Merlot. This is a case of mistaken identity as both varieties have similar body and flavor profile. The medium to full-bodied red wines can both exhibit ripe fruit flavors like plum and berries and pair well with meat. Both wines have a softer tannin structure, making them good for blending with wines like Cabernet Sauvignon.
It was not until 1991, that the French ampelograph Claude Vallat pointed that some kind of Merlot produced in Chile wasn’t Merlot at all, but he couldn’t identify what type of strain it was. In 1994, Jean Michel Boursiquot, disciple of Vallat, finally concluded that the random plant in question was Carménère, a strain that for a century was supposed to be extinct!
Most Carménère wines have striking aromas of raspberry sauce, sour cherry, green peppercorn, and a granite-like minerality. On the more affordable end, you can expect to find Carménère wines with honest fruity red berry aromas and tart flavors of raspberry with a subtly bitter taste similar to kale. On the higher end, the herbaceous, bitter notes depart the scene in favor of sweet berries, refined light tannin, and a bittersweet note, like cocoa powder.
Detailed Carménère Information
The majority of Carménère hails from within the Central Valley of Chile. This is the largest wine-producing zone in Chile, and it contains several regions to know for Carménère:
Maipo is the northernmost region of the Central Valley Region. Quality Carménère from this area is somewhat lighter with lovely floral notes of cherry, hibiscus, and rose with a subtle petrichor/granite-like minerality.
The Cachapoal Valley tends to produce Carménère wines with a balance between sweet and sour cherry fruit and the characteristic herbal green peppercorn note. Wines often have heightened acidity, which indicates this region could produce age-worthy wines.
Peumo: Wines from Peumo are consistently rated amongst the very best Carménère from Chile. The region is one of the oldest wine-producing areas in Chile. Carménère wines here have a more full-bodied style with sweet red berry aromas and heightened alcohol. Carménère wines from Peumo have been shown to age 15 or so years.
You’ll find that most Carménère on the market today hails from Colchagua Valley. Most wines will exhibit rich raspberry sauce aromas along with a distinct green peppercorn herbal note. However, the region is quite varied in style from the coast to the foothills of the Andes.
Apalta: Within Colchagua valley is a sub-region called Apalta, which is located in the transverse range between the Andes and the ocean. Carménère wines from this area produce more structured tannin and are often oaked to reveal sweet raspberry notes and very little herbaceousness. The region is home to just 6 wineries as the rest is protected forest land.
Wines labeled with Rapel Valley are made with grapes that can hail from both Colchagua and Cachapoal Valleys.
Food Pairing with Carménère
Carménère makes an excellent everyday food pairing wine for several reasons. For one, the naturally high acidity makes for excellent pairing next to foods with higher acidity sauces (Cuban-style roast pork Lechon Asado anyone?). Another keen benefit is Carménère’s herbaceous peppercorn-like flavor that often embellishes roasted meats (from chicken to beef). Finally, the lower tannin in Carménère makes it a friendly option for lighter, less fatty dishes. In short, this is one to keep around for just about everything. Still, make a note of the keen matches to try with Carménère below:
Chicken Mole, Carne Asada, Cuban-style Roast Pork, Roast Dark Meat Turkey, Beef Brisket, Beef Stew, Filet Mignon, Lamb w/ Mint, Lamb Stew
Goat Cheese, Mozzarella, Pepper Jack, Farmer’s Cheese, Cotija Cheese, Feta Cheese
Green Peppercorn, Black Pepper, Red Chili Flake, Chipotle, Garlic, Cumin, Coriander, Thyme, Oregano, Chives, Lemon
Olives, Stuffed Peppers, Roasted Peppers, Capers, Sautéed Garlic Kale, Black-eyed Peas, Black Beans, White Bean and Kale Soup, Pinto Bean Chile, Lentils
There you have it. The story of Carménère. Chilean winemakers have since produced Carménère and made it a world known wine, winning prizes in Asia, Australia and the United States. If you want to try this fighter wine strain....
Source: Wine Folly, South America Wine Guide