Carmenere: The Singular Grape of Chile

In the wine world, there is often a reference to a singular grape that is closely identified with a particular wine producing country.  In essence, a varietal that is so connected to a certain locale that it is directly attributed to it even if the grape in question originated somewhere else.  Let’s play a game of grape association to help make this assertion, shall we?  Mention these wine producing republics and what grape immediately comes to mind as unique when you speak of them: Argentina, Spain, South Africa, and California.  Your answers should be Malbec, Tempranillo, Pinotage, and Zinfandel.  Okay, California isn’t a wine “country” but it does produce 90% of all vino in the US and on its own would be the fifth largest wine producing “nation” if it seceded from the Union.

So when it comes to South America’s 2nd most productive wine nation, Chile, what unique grape variety is its most coveted?   That, of course, would be the red varietal, Carmenere.  How did this come to be?  Well, to be honest, mostly by accident.  You see, unlike botanists in South Africa, for example, who purposely crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault genetically to create their singular varietal Pinotage, Chile literally awoke one day in 1994 to discover that their “raisin singulier” had been hiding in their midst unbeknownst to anyone.

As the story goes, it seems that Carmenere had always been with them (well at least since the latter half of the 19th Century).   Back around this time, Chilean grape growers were importing vine cuttings from France, largely from Bordeaux, to be planted in the rocky alluvial soils outside of Santiago.  Much of what they thought they were importing was Merlot.  It turns out however, that they got a fair amount of Carmenere as well.  Merlot and Carmenere are relatives, and before Phylloxera wiped out all the great vineyards in Bordeaux, both grapes were important components of what went into the final blend.  Carmenere was susceptible to odium, however, and when the vineyards were replanted, it was slowly phased out entirely.

Back in Chile, Carmenere escaped extinction by being thought of as a clone of Merlot.  How is this possible?  Well, at a quick glance, the grape varieties do look similar.  There are differences, one of them being that Merlot ripens 2-3 weeks before its Bordelaise cousin.  They also taste different: Carmenere doesn’t share Merlot’s blackberry essence.  Instead, it offers up something more akin to a Linzer Torte – black cherry, with smoke and red spice accents.

Somehow, things got mixed up in the end anyway, and Merlot vines were planted side-by-side with Carmenere in many of the old-vine plots that still exist today.   Chances are that if you bought a bottle of Chilean Merlot back in the 1980’s, it was a blend of the two varieties.  Things didn’t get sorted out until a decade later when DNA testing revealed the true nature of things.

Once the Chilean wine industry realized that they had something special, indeed unique, they moved quickly to capitalize on their good fortune.   New plots of Carmenere were propagated in locations that ideally suited it and varietal bottlings of Chilean Carmenere are simply all the rage.

And now we get to enjoy its singularity.

Jim Greeley, Wine Supervisor, SW Florida.

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