Article By: Sandy Block, MW
After making quite a splash as one of the promising new things under the sun in the late 199Os the Carmenere grape remains quite a mystery to most wine lovers. The flagship of a resurgent Chilean wine industry, with its impeccable Bordeaux blood lines, this was a variety that was poised to take the world by storm.
Although it once raised great hopes, as the wine that would differentiate Chile in our minds from all the other producers of value priced Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, its history has been checkered, its identity shrouded in obscurity. What is Carmenere?
It’s instructive perhaps to say what it isn’t: Malbec. Both originate in Bordeaux – and while Carmenere is no longer grown there, Malbec’s contribution is simply as an undistinguished minor player to the varietal mix without substantial influence on the character of the wines. Replanted in South America, both have emerged from anonymity as significant players in the vineyard acreage of their respective countries. Somehow they behave differently in the sunnier, drier climates of Chile, where the harvest can extend into the autumn, and in the higher elevations of Argentina with their brilliant luminosity. But while Argentine Malbec has captured the American public’s imagination, nudging aside previous grape fashionistas such as Aussie Shiraz to claim a place on the mandatory “must have” all purpose wine list, Carmenere suffers the same image as the country where it is widely planted: indifference. What’s not clear is why.
It’s certainly not quality. Recent blind tastings of Carmenere reveal a grape variety that is undervalued and underappreciated. The same cannot be said with confidence of comparably priced Argentinian Malbec. Head to head, the Carmenere was better, especially if you enjoy dark chocolatey balanced fruit flavors in your red wine. (Both categories, by the way, roundly trounced California Merlot.) This is a familiar story: success breeds more success, which encourages investment, leads to over-planting, over-cropping, and trying to fill the thirsty pipeline with whatever grapes are available. The result? A slew of new quality-diluted, less flavorful wines to maintain desired price points. Carmenere, on the other hand, fits a dramatically different profile: the unloved, unknown wine that is consistently better than it has to be for its price point because no one ever buys it to be fashionable.
What’s true of Chile in general, although not indiscriminately, is that today you get great value at whatever the price point. It may be somewhat indefensible to say this because it’s so broad, but in my considered opinion if you want to spend $1O, spend $15, spend $25 or spend $5O, the odds are that you are going to get a better wine from Chile than virtually anywhere else. The Carmenere is no different. When used as a single varietal, such as Concha y Toro’s “Terrunyo” Carmenere, or as the majority player in a blend, such as Santa Rita’s Pehuen (one of the single greatest South American wines I’ve ever had), you’ll be hard pressed to find comparable value. But as the market has not yet embraced slightly higher priced Carmenere, the following blind-tasting recommendations are in the bargain category. They are listed in ascending order of preference.
SANTA RITA “RESERVA” RAPEL VALLEY 2OO7
2OO7 is quite a strong vintage in this valley for ripening Carmenere, with yields down a bit but quality up. Santa Rita makes a deeply colored, spicy Carmenere with prominent blackberry fruit flavors. Vibrantly structured, this lovely ripe, almost sweet flavors, it is firm in style and quite full bodied. This is a fine example of the quality that develops from finally planting Carmenere in its own dedicated plots and harvesting it at the optimum time (late, sometimes in May) rather than together with Merlot as was once the practice. $13
VINA CASABLANCA “EL BOSQUE” RAPEL VALLEY 2OO7
Deep ruby in color, this wine has a muted nose, with a round chocolatey black fruit flavor profile. It’s soft and mild in tannin and finishes with a spicy, licorice accented lingering flavor. It’s also a great example of how to explain Carmenere to those unfamiliar with it: a more intensely flavored, slightly more peppery but not less fleshy and smooth wine than Merlot. $13
SANTA CAROLINA “RESERVA de FAMILIA” RAPEL VALLEY 2OO7
The fruit comprising this reserve wine is mostly from a very warm part of the Rapel, called Peumo, where the great Terrunyo also originates. This has a gamey, smoked meat quality, somewhat dark and brooding, but with a black cherry-like spice on the palate as well. From late picked fruit, harvested in mid-May, this seems to me to have the capacity to move up in class with a few years of bottle age. $18
EMILIANA “NATURA” COLCHAGUA VALLEY 2OO7
Slightly smoky, with a meaty mushroom like aroma, this is made by South America’s largest producer of organic grapes from a vineyard in Los Robles, a sub zone of Colchagua Valley. Thick, rich and chocolatey on the palate, a bit chewy and tannic, it has the black fruit density to complement braised meats and stews. $11
CASILLERO del DIABLO RAPEL VALLEY 2OO7
This wine has been an amazing value for several years. What’s less understood is that even at this price point it can age and develop, as a delicious 2OO4 tasted recently demonstrated. The current vintage shows a fragrant cranberry, red pepper and vanilla note on the nose, with a bit of characteristic lushness and sweet nutmeg accented berry fruit extract. There is substantial presence on the palate and a very sophisticated integration of the fruit and spice flavors. $11
MORANDE TERRARUM “RESERVA” MAIPO VALLEY 2OO7
With a mélange of coffee mocha, bacon and other cured meat aromas, this fleshy, soft wine is clearly marked by a strong oak statement. Vanilla, coconut, toasty flavors somewhat overshadow the fruit at this point, but the luscious texture and nicely structured high fruit extract promise great things. This will be a crowd pleasing style that needs perhaps a few more months to round into shape, but when it does it will be something special. $13
SANTA DIGNA “RESERVA” CENTRAL VALLEY 2OO7
A bargain among bargains, this dark berry scented wine has a fine aroma of clove and allspice to round out the fruit. It’s creamy and intense, with seductively sweet chocolate flavors and enough of a tang to keep everything in balance. A “wow” wine, especially when considering the price. $1O
TERRA NOBLE “RESERVA” MAULE VALLEY 2OO5
One of the few wines in the tasting with some bottle age, this outstanding wine originates several hundred miles south of the others, in the remote Maule Valley. As with many of the others, there is a chocolate and sausage-like accent to the fruit. Soft and mellow, with a silky palate feel, it also has a spicy edginess that lingers into the finish. This is really a satisfying wine with enough strength of personality that despite its softness remains interesting. $12
SANTA CAROLINA “RESERVA” RAPEL VALLEY 2OO7
With everything in balance, this wine has the maximum 15% Cabernet incorporated into the blend. It’s extremely clean, with great purity of ripe black cherry fruit and undertones of pepper and earth. Silky smooth, with medium body and soft but persistent tannins, it’s one of those wines that will appeal to connoisseurs as well as to Merlot drinkers who want to branch out into something a bit spicier. $11