Carmenere Wine Characteristics
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The History of a Variety
Though originating as part of the Cabernet family in Bordeaux, France, Carmenere barely grows today in that region. After phylloxera decimated vineyards through Europe, a changing of the guard occurred with varieties taking ready home to grafted vines stepping to the fore. Carmenere was one of the hardest hit grape types when phylloxera landed in Europe, leading people to believe the variety had become extinct.
Prior to the phylloxera epidemic, cuttings were taken from top vineyards in Europe to establish wine in the immigrant settlements of South America. Among them was included a softer tannin, medium bodied crimson juiced grape treated as Merlot in the vineyards for its shared characteristics in the glass.
One hundred years after import to Chile, Carmenere was discovered interplanted to Merlot vineyards. Chile, then, became one of the few places on earth the grape had survived. Through the research on quality done by a few producers from the 1990s forward, Carmenere has become a flagship grape of Chile.
Today small plantings of Carmenere have also been discovered in Northeastern Italy, where it snuck in as misidentified Cabernet Franc thanks to their shared vegetal-herbal tendencies. Though not common in Italy, Carmenere has begun in small quantities to be labeled under its own name. Among the few regions to intentionally plant Carmenere from the beginning, Washington, and California also house the variety.
Vineyard Character of the Vine
On vine, Carmenere ripens at least one month later than Merlot, and gives a characteristic copper colored burst to its buds, plus copper striping on the shoots.
The grapes also differ in Carmenere’s tendency to produce distinctive vegetal characteristics depending on crop management and vintage duration. In hotter shorter vintages where clusters ripen faster, the fruit is more likely to show bell and hot pepper notes. Thanks to the varieties later ripening tendencies, crop management proves crucial to flavor development of the grape.
The larger the crop, the harder the vine has to work to ripen its fruit. The less ripe the grape, the more vegetal its profile. Thus, intentional crop size decisions can help determine the fruit to pepper notes in the final wine. How this balance is struck depends on producer, as some prefer a touch of pepper as part of the fruit’s character, while others wish to highlight the fruit elements.
Allowing for crop size decisions, Carmenere can do well in a range of climate conditions showing a greater structural focus with long juiciness when grown in cooler climates, and more fruit expression when grown warmer.
Thanks to the softer tannin of the grape, canopy management is less essential than on a variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, where some sun exposure helps tannin to soften to the benefit of the final wine.
Wine Characteristics of Carmenere
Once brought to glass, the crop conditions of the fruit heavily influence the fruit and spice components of the wine. Warmer temperatures encourage more apparent fruit notes with a mix of dark berries and pert red fruit being typical. As the climate of the vineyard cools, the juiciness of the wine tends to increase, with a greater overall focus on structure and leanness brought to the wine. To take advantages of these differing characteristics, many producers blend fruit from multiple vineyard sites, offering structure and acid from cool spots to the fruit of warmer locations.
Carmenere’s fruit readily carries its own spice elements too, however, with vegetal aspects being influenced by crop conditions, as already mentioned, but red spice, smoke, and earth readily coming with the crop. The wine can also easily deepen into tobacco, cocoa, and leather depending on the handling of the fruit in the winery.
More on specific examples of Carmenere in future posts, and also in the previous post on Root: 1 wine.
Pairing Food with Carmenere
I’ve become obsessed with a Chilean dish, Pastel de Choclo, that the wine pairs beautifully with. It’s a corn and meat pie that would serve as the perfect means to talk me into almost anything. While you argue your case I’ll happily nod again and again trying to listen while actually losing myself in deep-deep choclo love. (Potato will always hold the deepest place in my heart (and gullet–I could accidentally die eating unbridled potato) but choclo comes next. Love me anyway, dear corn?)
Carmenere is classic paired with lamb, and does well with smokey notes of grilled lamb.
I can also imagine Carmenere’s spice and cocoa combo doing well with molé, though I haven’t gotten to try this yet.
Thank you to Sergio Hormazabal.
Thank you to Marilyn Krieger, David Greenberg, and Alfredo Bartholomaus.
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