The Discreet Charm of Carménère

An ugly duckling orphaned in a faraway land. A famous case of mistaken identity. Oodles of quirky, unpredictable character.

If Wes Anderson ever gets around to making a wine movie, he needn’t look any further for inspiration than Carménère, a grape that puts the lie to the common complaint that Chilean wines are dull and anonymous.

Like Malbec just across the Andes in Argentina, Carménère was a minor and mostly forgotten Bordelaise blending grape that barely survived the phylloxera epidemic in France. The phylloxera aphid, however, never made it to Chile, where Carménère vines had been imported in the 1850s. There, it thrived and ripened in a way it never could in Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, it was planted in close proximity to Merlot, to which it bears a passing resemblance in the field. It ripened later and possessed some singularly non-Merlot-like aromas and flavors, but it eventually became known as Merlot Chileño, which was inevitably shortened to, simply, Merlot . . . you see where this is leading. Chilean "Merlot" acquired a reputation for being a funky, anomalous thing, which was true except that it wasn't really Merlot. It took until the 1990s for the world to be reminded by French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot that Chile was, in fact, home to thousands of hectares of very historic Carménère rootstock.

To muddy the waters further, it sort of tastes like Merlot — a core of plums and black cherries and chocolate — at least until you smack up against Carménère's oddball smoky-earthy-green-herbaceousness, which can be either unique and intriguing, or acrid and offputting (or worse, muted under an avalanche of oak) depending on the skill of the winemaker. Cab Franc is the only other red wine to have such pronounced green veggie flavors that aren't considered a sign of underripe fruit, but with Carménère there's an additional layer of smoke: think roasted hatch chiles or charred poblanos. And then there's the herbals. Mint and sarsaparilla get used a lot in Carménère descriptions, but there's an underlying earthiness that makes us think of yerba mate, which seems appropriate for this part of the world. 

Compared to other signature new world reds, Carménère’s neither as profoundly heavy as Malbec or as overly extracted and high in alcohol as Zinfandel — and, in a lot of cases, it has more surprises swirling around in the glass than either.

It's quirky and it's not for everyone, but lacking in personality it is not.

HULK SMASH!  2013 El Grano Carménère, Curico Valley

HULK SMASH! 2013 El Grano Carménère, Curico Valley

Right now, during our Spring focus on the wines of Chile, we’re pouring El Grano’s 2013 Carménère, made by Loire Valley native Denis Duveau in the Curico Valley 70 miles south of Santiago. The 20 year old vines are organically farmed and green harvested to keep yields low. Dark, pruney fruits, jalapeño and tea on the nose; cassis, spice and savory notes on the palate. This is a very friendly introduction to a unique grape that Chilean winemakers are still figuring out. Try a glass!