Carmenere: The Rediscovery of the King
The Carmenere grape is thought to be an ancient clone to Cabernet Sauvignon and the ancestor of other red Bordeaux grapes, such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet franc and Petit Verdot. Many experts trace the Carmenere back to ancient Rome under the name Biturica, which was the Roman Empirical name of the Bordeaux region. How can such a regal wine variety be so lesser known than its Bordeaux relatives?
In 1867 avid botanists turned New World explorers brought back to England some native North American grape varieties that carried a pesky little passenger known as phylloxera, a voracious little insect whose favorite snack is the root of grape vines. The phylloxera moved from England to the mainland and ravished the vineyards of France and continental Europe, eventually killing seventy to ninety percent of Europe’s vine stock. The vineyards were successfully replanted by grafting the European vines onto North American root stock, which naturally resisted the plague. Phylloxera has proven itself to be very adaptive and resilient by mutating and attacking roots previously thought to be resistant. Californian vineyards learned this when their root stock fell victim to a mutated version of phylloxera in the 1960’s. Between the 60’s and 80’s many vineyards lost their entire vine stock and many are still replanting today.
Carmenere is a sensitive plant. It needs a long, hot, dry growing season. A cold snap or rains in spring can shut the plant down, preventing it from producing flowers and therefore no grapes. During the replanting of Europe in the late 19th century, wine makers also discovered that Carmenere would not remain healthy grafted to a foreign root stock. Therefore Carmenere was declared extinct. A very small amount survived in France and Italy, but due to the imperfect climate and problems with grafting, these areas could not produce a significant crop to keep the variety alive.
Flash forward to the fall of 1994 when European oenologist, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, while visiting vineyards in Chile, noticed the crimson colored leaves on many plants in the vineyard. He was told it was a variety of Merlot, known as Merlot Peumal, a name derived from its Chilean origins in the Peumo Valley in the 1860’s. This Chilean Merlot variety was smokier and spicier than a Bordeaux Merlot, and the plants were not very strong, producing fewer grapes. Boursiquot knew these were signature qualities of the long-extinct Carmenere, and he wondered if it was possible that the massive Andean mountains in the east, the vast Atacama Desert in the north, the glacier fields to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west had safely guarded the Carmenere in Chile for 150 years. After DNA testing proved he was right, the Bordeaux Carmenere had been rediscovered with over 22,000 acres throughout Chile. Not only was it alive, but the plant had found its true home in the central valleys of Chile with their long, dry, hot growing seasons.
Most Chilean winemakers blend Carmenere with the big, bold Cabernet Sauvignons of Chile, making them more drinkable for customers. Since the Carmenere has complex tannins and unique notes such as pepper, tobacco, leather and dark chocolate, it makes for a more interesting blend with Cabernet Sauvignon than a fruitier Merlot would. Many Chilean vineyards are discovering that they can produce award winning 100% Carmeneres by using centuries-old French wine making techniques with the perfectly ripened Carmenere grapes of the central valleys in Chile. Soon the names of Chile and Carmenere will be as synonymous as Malbec and Argentina.
In the meantime the best place to get to know Carmenere is in Chile. More vineyards now include 100% Carmeneres in their tastings and most wine lists in Santiago have as many Carmeneres as they do Cabernet Sauvignons. Visiting the vineyards by bicycle is the best way to test your ability to discern between the Merlot and Carmenere. La Bicicleta Verde (The Green Bike) has a wine tour by bicycle in Chile’s oldest wine growing region, The Maipo Valley. The day includes three vineyards, wine tastings and a full countryside lunch. Contact them through www.labicicletaverde.com.
Autor: Mac Mitchell