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An ideal Chilean varietal in Cabernet’s family
By John H. Isacs

DOES Chile actually have its own national grape? Well not exactly, but close enough. The Carmenere grape originated in Europe where it was best known in pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, but when we think of the variety today all focus turns to Chile. Though the grape is still cultivated in limited quantities in France, Italy, Australia and the US, Chile is at the forefront of quality Carmenere wines.

Though the grape is still cultivated in limited quantities in France, Italy, Australia and the US, Chile is at the forefront of quality Carmenere wines.


Many in the wine world have postulated that like the Cabernet family of grapes, Carmenere is an ancestor of the legendary Biturica. Ancient Roman poets and philosophers like Pliny the Elder and Virgil expounded on the merits of Biturica wines and their popularity with connoisseurs of the day. So sought after were Biturica wines that they often carried a hefty price in Roman coins, gold or even slaves.

According to my friends who actually do the science, the most recent DNA work indicates that Carmenere is actually the offspring of Cabernet Franc and now practically extinct Gros Cabernet grapes. We also know that Carmenere played an important role in the Bordeaux blends until the 19th century, when it nearly disappeared. The grape contributed depth of color and attractive herbal and gamy qualities that nicely complemented the other Bordeaux varieties.

In 1867 the phylloxera outbreak devastated the vines of Bordeaux. After a few years, winemakers discovered a technique of grafting the French vines onto American rootstock that was resistant to the pest. This solution worked perfectly well with the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the other Bordeaux grapes, but not with Carmenere.

Another reason winemakers were reluctant to replant Carmenere is that the variety is rather a problem child. The grape ripens relatively late and unevenly and is prone to high levels of pyrazine content that result in unpleasant vegetal sensations. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that this niggling variety all but disappeared from the Bordeaux landscape.


The Chilean wine industry is among the oldest in the New World, dating to 1554 when Diego Garcia de Caceres first planted vines in Santiago. Mirroring the progress of the nation, the wine industry had its fair share of ups and downs. Since the return to democracy in 1990, Chile’s wine industry has been a global star in terms of market share and quality.

Quietly playing a role in this success was our difficult little grape Carmenere. Then in 1994, Frenchman Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier’s school of Oenology made a startling discovery. Jean-Michel is an ampelographer, a fancy word meaning that he’s an expert in identifying and distinguishing vines and grapes. Two decades ago he scientifically established that approximately half of all Chilean Merlot vines were actually Carmenere. This is understandable when you realize that the two grapes look practically the same. Suddenly this nearly extinct varietal was reborn in an extraordinary way half a world away from its birth.

The same qualities that made it a tricky grape for Bordeaux winemakers made it nearly ideal for their Chilean counterparts. The consistently long, hot and dry growing seasons of Chile are ideal for Carmenere. Today Carmenere is well-represented in many of Chile’s most famous wine regions including Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley and Maipo. But despite this rather remarkable rebirth the variety is still not appreciated by everyone.

No middle ground

Carmenere is a very polarizing variety. Chilean winemakers and wine connoisseurs around the world tend to either love it or hate it. Very few are indifferent.

Proponents cite the uniqueness of the variety and its status as Chile’s special grape. Well-made Carmenere wines exhibit intriguing aromas and flavors of ripe red and black fruit, chocolate, bell pepper and tobacco with gentle tannins. Depending on the use of oak, the wines range from toasty and creamy to spicy and smoky. Many of the better Carmenere wines also have a pleasant gamy quality.

Detractors doubt the grape’s ability to make great wines and feel Chilean winemaking should concentrate on more established noble varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

If winemakers are not patient and don’t allow the extra time needed for the Carmenere grape to fully ripen, the resulting wines are quite narrow, insipid and have an unpleasant strong vegetal character.

Personally, I’m a Carmenere fan. I’m attracted to the gamy, leather, smoky qualities of the wine along with the smooth and silky texture. I also love the color. In fact, the name Carmenere comes from the French word for crimson and indeed most wines made from this variety have a beautiful deep crimson red color, often with purple and black tones. This grape has long been misunderstood and underestimated. With a growing number of Chilean producers now championing the variety as their national grape, a new and promising day beckons for Carmenere.

Some recommendations

Carmenere wines offer one of the better price-quality ratios in China. Most are easy-going, fruity with soft tannins and are ready to drink upon purchase. Premium Carmenere wines are still quite reasonably priced but they offer a fuller, more complex drinking experience and can be cellared for a few years. Be careful not to serve these wines too warm. Ideal serving temperature for budget Carmenere wines is 15-16 degrees Celsius while premium wines should be served at 16-18 Celsius.

Three wines that I recently tasted in Shanghai beautifully showcase the potential for premium Carmenere wines. They included the Vina Chocalan Carmenere Reserva, a thick, rich and gamy wine featuring aromas and flavors of blackberries, cherries and cloves; the Santa Rita Reserva Carmenere, offering lively black fruit aromas and flavors with lovely chocolate notes and a silky tannic finish; and Casa La Joya Camenere Gran Reserva Cuvee Premium, which offers a spicy fruit nose and beautifully balanced ripe black fruit and lush palate coating tannins with a long finish. All three wines pair beautifully with hearty meat stews and roasts.

Worthy budget Carmenere wines are also easy to find in our fair city. Two eminently drinkable wines that sell for just north of 100 yuan are the Bolero Reserva Carmenere, a fruity yet balanced wine, and the Inspira Carmenere Reserva, a full-flavored and smooth wine with great Carmenere properties.

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