Grape focus: Carménère

CARMENERE’S STORY is by now well known. Originally big in Bordeaux, it wasn’t re planted in the region after the ravages of phlloxera (a vine-killing louse) in the late 19th century, the reason being that it didn’t take well to being grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks, and was in any case a pain generally to grow in Aquitaine’s tepid climate.


It would have gone extinct but prior to the infestation Chilean winemakers had inadvertently imported Carmenere to their country (they thought it was Merlot) where it actually adapted very well to the warm, equable valleys around Santiago. For over a century Chile’s vignerons blithely tended their Carmenere and earnestly sold the resulting bottles as Merlot. Don’t laugh: the vines of both cultivars look the same and the wines share similarities too; whatever differences there were could easily be ascribed to the magic of ‘terroir’.

It took until 1994 for a DNA researcher in Montpellier to spot the mistake, and for 1998 for the Chilean Department of Agriculture to officially recognise Carmenere as a distinct variety.

Back in its erstwhile home of Bordeaux, meanwhile, little or no Carmenere is grown today, a situation that is unlikely to change even as the grape’s star rises. A handful of vines are cultivated in Italy’s Veneto and Friuli, and there is some in Washington State, too; but, really, when it comes to this colourful grape, Chile is the only game in town.

Although plenty of varietal Carmenere is seen, and the quality of these offerings is improving with every vintage, there is a school of thought that says Carmenere is not really a ‘complete’ grape on its own, and needs blending with Cabernet, Syrah or others to make a balanced wine.

There’s only one way to find out – get tasting!


3 to try

Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenere 2012 €12.49 Buy any 2 Chilean wines, save 20% = €9.99
Robust, spicy red with a big personality and accessible flavours – a super introduction to Chile’s signature grape.

Tabali Reserva Carmenere 2011 €16.99 Buy any 2 Chilean wines, save 20% = €13.59
From fruit grown in unique desert conditions in the north of Chile’s winelands. Hand harvested and barrique aged.

Santa Alicia ‘Millantu’ 2008 €21 Buy any 2 Chilean wines, save 20% = €16.80
Some say Carmenere works better in blends – you decide! It makes up a fifth of this luscious, Cabernet-dominant masterpiece.


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