Curious Small Sips #20: Carménère

Carménère’s story is by now well known. Originally found in the Médoc, Bordeaux, it wasn’t replanted in the region after the ravages of phlloxera (that pesky vine-killing louse) in the late 19th century. This was largely because it didn’t take well to being grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks, but it was also struggled to ripen in Aquitaine’s tepid climate. The grape would have become extinct but prior to the infestation Chilean winemakers had inadvertently imported Carménère to their country (thinking 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 Carménère and 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 until 1998 for the Chilean Department of Agriculture to officially recognise Carménère as a distinct variety.

Back home in Bordeaux, meanwhile, little or no Carménère 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 Carménère, Chile is the only serious contender. Although plenty of varietal Carménère is seen, and the quality of these offerings is improving with every vintage, some believe that Carménère 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 thing to do and that’s to get tasting and decide for yourself!


Image: Viña von Siebenthal Carménère Gran Reserva, wine of Aconcagua, Chile; © Viña von Siebenthal.

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