Carmenère wine grape

Carmenère
The signature black (very black) grape of Chile, deep-coloured Carmenère is an old variety from Bordeaux, where it was once second to Cabernet Franc in importance.  Today it is almost extinct in its homeland.  Although still an allowed variety for red Bordeaux, just a couple of dozen hectares exist in all France.  Chile, by contrast, has more than nine thousand hectares: about the same vineyard area as Syrah.  That’s still some way behind Merlot and a long way behind Cabernet Sauvignon, but lots of countries grow those: Carmenère is effectively unique to Chile.
 
In 1996 Chile didn’t have any Carmenère, officially.  But a couple of visiting French experts had suggested that some – even most – Chilean “Merlot” was in fact Carmenère, and in 1997 DNA testing proved it.  The grape had been brought to Chile with the other Bordeaux varieties in the mid-19th century when it was still abundant in the Médoc.
 
Fifty years later Carmenère had all but disappeared from its original home.  Its wine was good but its yields were poor, due mostly to a susceptibility to coulure: poor fruit set caused by bad weather at flowering time, something which happens quite a lot in Bordeaux.  When phylloxera struck the region at the end of the 19th century, forcing all vineyards to be replanted on resistant American rootstocks, growers chose Merlot instead.  It was much more productive and ripened earlier.  Though Carmenère had shone in good vintages, in cooler years its wines had been excessively herbaceous.  Merlot wasn’t so fussy.
 
Another Bordeaux grape, Malbec, suffered a similar fate, though not so completely.  In South America both lived on, Malbec in Argentina and Carmenère in Chile.  The reliably sunny climate meant coulure wasn’t a problem and the grape could ripen fully.  But its identity was lost; it was thought to be just a local clone of Merlot, which it resembles physically.  It certainly tastes like a Bordeaux variety, though perhaps one closer to its parent Cabernet Franc than to its half-sibling Merlot.
 
For DNA testing has revealed that the Bordeaux varieties are indeed closely related, as one might expect from the similar taste of their wines.  Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are all children of Cabernet Franc.  Merlot’s other parent is the very obscure Magdeleine Noir des Charentes, which is also the parent of Malbec.  Carmenère’s other parent is Gros Cabernet, which is no longer cultivated but is the offspring of Basque variety Hondarribi Belza, which is yet another child of Cabernet Franc.  So Carmenère is both the child and great-grandchild of Cabernet Franc, and exhibits some of its blackcurrant and capsicum characteristics.
 
That green pepper leafiness can be excessive if the grapes are underripe; it’s less forgiving than its relatives in that regard.  Though Bordeaux blackcurrant is present at all stages of ripeness, it isn’t as dominant as in the Cabernets.  Other fruit flavours are more to the fore, shading from red berries to blackberry and blueberry as the grapes ripen.  Spice and chocolate notes are often found.  It has lower acid and tannin levels than the Cabernets, producing softer wines that can be enjoyed young.
 
Though Carmenère is practically synonymous with Chile, the grape has another, recently-discovered stronghold in north-east Italy.  Twenty years ago there was thought to be about as much of the variety there as there was in France – practically none – but in an amusing echo of the Chilean confusion, about a thousand hectares of Italian “Cabernet Franc” have proved to be Carmenère.

Decanting Club wines containing: Carmenère

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