Curious Small Sip #43: Carménère

Carménère grapes on the vine

If there were ever an international grape of mystery, it’s Carménère.

Born in France, or possibly Ancient Rome, Carménère is a red grape variety that was originally popular in the Médoc, before establishing itself as one of the core red grape varieties in Bordeaux alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. These days, though, you rarely see it in France at all. It was all but wiped out by phylloxera in the late-1800s, and was pretty much thought to be extinct globally.

But no…

Turns out it had been living in Chile, masquerading as a Merlot lookalike. It had sneaked out of France among Merlot vines that were sent to Chile in the mid-1800s. Its cover was blown in 1994 by a French oenologist, who discovered that half of Chile’s Merlot was in fact Carménère. For a while, Chile was celebrated as Carménère’s modern home. This was where the grape truly shone, now and forever uniquely linked to Chil…

Oh, wait…

Turns out that Cabernet Gernischt, which was imported into China in the mid-1800s, is also genetically identical to Carménère. In other words, it is Carménère. And now China, not Chile, has the biggest Carménère plantings.

Carménère has a long growing season and does well in moderately warm climates. It’s used to make both single variety wines or blended, usually with its previous Bordeaux stablemates (and close relatives) Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot.

Carménère is known for its herby, bell pepper aromas, in addition to cherry and blackberry notes. If you get vanilla, that’s the oak it was aged in. Carménère goes easy on the tannins and acidity, and it’s a wine that pairs well with a broad range of roasted meats, including poultry.

Image: Lebowskyclone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Licence

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