By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 28 January 2017
Soya sauce and balsamic, black pepper and herbs. The distinctive savoury flavours and bitter sweet taste of Carmenere are becoming very popular with drinkers who love deep coloured lush heady red wines.
If you have already discovered this unusual grape, it is most likely to have been a Carmenere from Chile. Yet, like Malbec in Argentina, Carmenere is a French grape and actually originates from Bordeaux. This grape was one of the most widely planted in the Medoc and Graves in early 18th century, where it was blended with Cabernet Franc. But when the phylloxera louse hit Bordeaux in late 19th century, Carmenere was largely replaced by the more resilient Merlot in Bordeaux. Carmenere was unpopular with growers due to its low yields and lack of resistence to coulure, oidium and phylloxera.
In phylloxera-free vineyards in Chile, Carmenere thrived – but it was for many years confused with Merlot. Their leaves are very similar in structure, although Carmenere is red underneath the leaf and Merlot is white (some believe the name Carmenere comes from the dark red colour ‘carmine’). In 1994 French ampelographer Claude Valat confirmed the mix-up in the Chilean vineyards with DNA tests, so much of the Merlot grown in Chile was found to be the late ripening grape Carmenere.
Today Chile is Carmenere’s base with nearly 10,000 hectares – over 80% of world plantings of the grape. It is found in the blends of top Chilean wines like Sena and Almaviva, but now winemakers are becoming more confident about producing varietal Carmenere.
My favourite Chilean examples are those grown in warmer areas of Alto Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua where the wines have luscious blackberry flavours with the soya sauce and balsamic characteristics (De Martino have a very good single vineyard Carmenere from Maipo). In cooler regions, like Chile’s Limari Valley it tends to have a more herbaceous, capsicum and green pepper flavour. Both versions work well with beef steak or curry dish to serve alongside.
Carmenere is not much of a globe-trotting varietal, compared to its other Bordeaux siblings Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Growers in Friuli, Trentino and Veneto in north east Italy recently discovered that much of what they thought was Cabernet Franc, was in fact Carmenere. Lombardy winery Ca del Bosco make varietal Carmenere, but it is usually found in blends like Masi’s Friuli-based Grandarella with Refosco grape.
A tiny amount of Carmenere is found in New Zealand, California, Canada’s British Columbia and Washington State, whose Walla Walla region probably has the most potential with its warmer climate. In China, Carmenere is known as Cabernet Gernischt with over 1,000 hectares planted – but they struggle to ripen Carmenere in places like Jiaodong in Shandong Province, the examples I tasted there were very herby, tomato-like and leafy compared to Chile’s lush ripe succulent examples.
CHILEAN CARMENERE TASTE TEST
Colchagua Valley: VINA VENTISQUERO ROOT 1 CARMENERE 2014 ***GREAT VALUE***
Very popular with tasters with its delicious smoky aromas, blackberry fruits, rich dark chocolate undertones and smooth rounded tannins. This is made from ungrafted Carmenere vines with 15% Syrah in the blend which works really well: Alc 13.5%
Aconcagua Valley: ERRAZURIZ ESTATE SERIES CARMENERE 2015
(£6.99/£8.99 Majestic Wine)
Dark chocolate and tobacco dominates the aroma and big bold tannins dominate the palate, with a hint of vanilla from their use of American oak. Our tasters thought it good value at £6.99: Alc 13.5%
Colchagua Valley: SECRET DE VIU MANENT CARMENERE 2014
Big rich fruit-driven style with a definite chunkiness to the palate and leafy undertones: Alc 14%
Maipo Valley: DE MARTINO LEGADO RESERVA CARMENERE 2014 ***GREAT VALUE***
(£10.50 Oddbins; 2012 vintage is £10.95 at Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
De Martino are one of Chile’s most dynamic wineries using multi-regional sources for their grapes. This Maipo Carmenere also includes fruit from Central Valley. Rich blackberry fruits, very spicy and coffee undertones – very popular with tasters: Alc 13.5%
Colchagua Valley: MONTES ALPHA CARMENERE 2014
If you like your Carmenere tasting of black pepper and red berries, you will this. Quite structured on the palate, not quite as lush as other Carmeneres in our tasting: Alc 14.5%
Maipo Valley: PEREZ CRUZ LIMITED EDITION CARMENERE 2014
(£13.99 Virgin Wines; 2011 vintage is £16.50 at Oddbins)
A youthful smooth voluptuous rich blackcurranty Carmenere with a prominent spiciness to the finish from 14 months maturation in French oak. Carmenere is blended here with 8% Petit Verdot and 2% Syrah: Alc 14%
Cachapoal Valley: TERRUNYO CARMENERE 2015 ***STAR BUY***
Concha y Toro’s winemaker Ignacio Recabarren is very skilled in choosing the best vineyard blocks for this Carmenere- he has coaxed all the pluminess, black cherry fruit and spiciness from his Carmenere without making it too overtly peppery. A little Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the blend adds structure: Alc 14.8%
Join Rose’s Chile & Argentina tasting in Edinburgh on Thurs 2 March £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com