A Grape Highlight: Carménère
In honor of my sister Melissa's current travels in Chile and the cold weather calling for Chili, I figured this month's Grape Highlight should be Carménère. I am sure a lot of you are not familiar with this particular grape. I had my first of this varietal last January from Skylite Cellars in Walla Walla. Which is the only Washington AVA in which it grows. Typically this grape can be found more accessibly in Chile or even China. I have never heard or tasted this incredibly unique wine, until well into my tasting experiences. But, after a bit of research and more tasting I learned the story of the comeback grape.
I am sure many of you have heard of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and possibly even Petit Verdot. The Bordeaux region of France has clearly made notable wines with these Five Noble grapes. But did you know that the red headed step child Carménère used to be included in this exclusive clique? And yes, I said step child, more accurately I should have said half-sibling. Carménère shares the same parent grape with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - Daddy Franc. Cabernet Franc has actively pursued many partners and has created phenomenal off-spring. But, realizing you and your bestie have the same dad is a little unsettling. What happened at that key party Cab Franc?
Regardless of the initial swinger party, this group of grapes made up the original Six Noble Grapes of Bordeaux. But after the Ted Bundy of louse (Phylloxera) massacred all grape vines in Bordeaux, Carménère was booted out of the club and not re-planted. This vine was too hard to grow and ripened roughly a month later than its constituents. It would cause a delay in harvest and a challenge in blending. Leaving grape farmers with the seemingly easy choice to let the grape native to the Southwest of France become extinct.
Unknowingly, the massacre in France caused by the head lice of grapevines allowed for a new wine market to emerge. The 19th Century devastation to the grapes in France caused many winemakers to be out of work. Knowing that Chile had transported untainted Vitis Vinifera and was establishing new wines with Bordeaux style grapes, many decided to relocate to the region for work. Ultimately, bringing talented winemakers to Chile to establish wonderful wineries.
Throughout this time, people noticed the Merlot in Chile was incredibly peppery. The wine was bold, tannic and enjoyable, but it lacked some of the fruit forward notes commonly found in Merlot. Was it perhaps the terroir of the region? The soil in Chile is much more sandy and comprised of granite, volcanic rock and schist. Regardless of the different soil type, the taste of the wine still did not seem right. A DNA test conducted in the late 1990's found that 50% of the grapes said to be Merlot in Chile were misidentified. This funky tasting Merlot was in fact Carménère. After its presumed extinction, the grape was preserved for 150 years in Chile.
Without the perfect sequence of events, we may not be able to enjoy this wine in a single varietal. You can likely find a bottle of this delicious juice at any of your local wine shops. Look for Chilean wines and find Carménère. You will want to splurge a bit and get a wine that costs around the 20 dollar mark, you also may need to try several. While this wine is delightful, it can be made poorly. Think of it this way, if you want to enjoy a wine, do not purchase 2 Buck Chuck. Also, don't be afraid to chat with your local wine shop employees, they have likely tried many of the wines they carry.
I hope you have enjoyed this Grape Highlight and you are encouraged to go out and find a bottle. Thank you to the Wine For Normal People Podcast and Book, Wine Wars Podcast and of course Wine Folly for all of the information on this incredible grape. Check these sites out to continue learning. Until next time, cheers!
Tasting Notes: Green pepper, plum and vanilla. This is a grape that is right up my tasting alley and is great for pairing. Our love for this wine was solidified the night we over spiced the Chili. The bold peppery notes of the Carménère overcame the searing pain on our tongues and slightly dulled the burn.
Please read, sing, rap the following to the tune of Lizzo's Truth Hurts.
Why does this grape, taste like another grape.
They just took a DNA test turns out
they were 50% of that grape,
that went extinct in France.
Yeah they had phylloxera problems
that's the vine in them,
now in Chile
they are thriving again.
You could of had a good grape,
Help you with your Bordeaux Blend
just a little.
Could held you down,
but you didn't want to play.
So now you'll find,
them thriving in Chile.