The Carmenère grape & its wines

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One of the most searched for terms on the Wines With Attitude website is Carmenère and yet I would not be surprised if many readers had not heard of this black grape variety because it accounts for only a small proportion of the total world wine grape production.


So why is Carmenère a popular search term? Though at relatively low levels compared to the big guns like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, production of Carmenère is increasing slowly and its wines are improving - with promise of interesting developments still to unfold. Nevertheless it is a grape of some controversy with definite fans and detractors. Let's find out why.


Where can you find Carmenère?

The Carmenère grape is most frequently seen in wines from Chile (and to a lesser degree from Italy) - and is considered Chile's signature grape variety even though it accounts for less than 10% of Chilean vineyards. It may surprise you therefore to learn that the Carmenère grape actually originates in Bordeaux. In fact very few Carmenère vines exist in Bordeaux now though it is still one of the six permitted black grape varieties in the region.


It is argued that China now grows more Carmenère than Chile. Other countries growing it include Italy as mentioned above, Argentina and the USA. It is a late-ripening variety and so requires a warm, sunny climate to thrive which limits where it can be successfully grown. It is a variety what is being planted increasingly but reliable figures on the number of hectares in each country planted with Carmenère are hard to come by because there is a lot of confusion about the grape.


Confusion over Carmenère

It was only recently found that Carmenère was directly related to Cabernet Franc and indirectly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This fact goes some way to explaining the problems that many have had identifying the Carmenère grape.


According to the wine industry "grape bible", 'Wine Grapes' (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), cuttings of Carmenère were sent to Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century but it is believed that some Chilean growers did not distinguish it from Merlot and planted the two (and maybe more) together in the same vineyards. Others who may have noticed a difference and dubbed Carmenère 'Merlot Chileno' did not produce varietal wine from it. It was only in 1998 that Chile recognised its beloved black grape variety as Carmenère after thorough DNA profiling. Before that (and probably since) some Chilean Merlot was undoubtedly Carmenère.


Just to add to the confusion Carmenère is also known as Carménère, Merlot Chileno, Black Bordeaux, Old Cabernet, Grand Vidure, Cabernet Gernischt and Shelongzhu.


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Carmenère's flavour profile

Despite all the confusion with Merlot, Carmenère shares a lot of the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is fairly deep in colour, moderately high in tannins which need careful management, and produces deep red wines with a medium to full body and relatively high alcohol. It usually has a smooth texture and is more often than not barrel fermented and aged. It is versatile and can be blended or produced as a single-varietal wine.


Carmenère can produce basic, easy-drinking wines - but be careful of those one-dimensional, commercial style wines. If not given sufficient time to ripen Carmenère grapes produce wine that can taste green or stalky with strong herbaceous characteristics. And without careful management in the winery wines can be too high in oak, alcohol and tannins making the wines more rustic than they need to be.

Carmenère has so much more to offer: a well-made example will be complex, with a silky mouthfeel, balanced soft tannins, oak and alcohol and highly concentrated  perfumes and flavours. The profile of a good Carmenère includes black fruits - sweet black plums, blackberries, blueberries - with, black pepper, smoky paprika, dark chocolate, tea, red peppers, and hints of tobacco and tar in more mature examples. The best are now being made in a more elegant style retaining the succulent dark fruit and pepper.

Whilst growers have tended to find the sunniest, warmest spots for Carmenère in order to get round the ripening problem, now they are looking for areas with a warm climates and moderating breezes in order to exhibit the grape's best varietal characteristics in its wines.


Which foods to serve with Carmenère

Given its similarity to Cabernet Sauvignon, any food that matches well with Cabernet should match well with Carmenère, like steak, roast beef and roast lamb.

If you look at my guidelines for food and wine-matching the intensity of the dish should be matched with the body of the wine and therefore the relatively complex and intense Carmenère can cope with quite strongly flavoured dishes.

Given its often earthy nature Carmenère can be drunk with hearty food like beef stews, lamb casseroles and cured meats. And because of its spicy characteristics, spicy dishes also work well with this wine, dishes such as goulash, chilli con carne and mild to medium curries. Olly Smith has also written about how well the Viña von Siebenthal Carmenère goes with curry: "Aromatic, plump and layered with delicious spice to champion curries all-round from masala to madras. Awesome."


When to drink Carmenère

A good Carmenère can be kept for about 5 years, longer if it has sufficient tannins, fruit and acidity. Poorer versions should be drunk within a couple of years of release.

Why should you try Carmenère

You should definitely try it if you are a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon - you might be very surprised - but also if you like fuller-bodied, more intensely flavoured, spicy red wines like Cabernet Franc and Grenache.

It is a very interesting time for this black grape. Producers in Chile especially are torn. Some want to keep Carmenère to add to blends - most frequently it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Since Carmenère is still relatively young as a recognised variety, others want to learn more about how to produce it better (it is not an easy grape variety to grow) in order to create a national wine on a par with Argentina's Malbec. Experiments with different terroirs, climates, soils and wine-making techniques continue making Carmenère definitely 'one to watch' over the next few years.


© Wines With Attitude Limited,

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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