Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Spicy Reds: Carménère!

Spicy reds are full of personality, flavor and pizzazz. Textbook samples of spicy wines are those made from grapes such as Malbec, Barbera, Pinotage, Shiraz and of course Carménère! These happen to be some of my favorite grapes to enjoy in the fall, no wonder I keep coming back to these delicious wines every year, as we transition to cool weather.

Originally from Bordeaux, Carménère, whose name derives from the French carmin (crimson), can be considered the Cinderella of grapes, mostly because at the beginning, Carmenère’s identity was ignored, misunderstood and mistaken to be something else.  In Bordeaux, it is one of the six allowed varieties,  joining the ranks of the classics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. But there, it always played a minor role in blends. Then, in 1869, phylloxera arrived and devastated most of the French vineyards, causing Carménère to become almost extinct. When the time came to replant Carménère, the Bordelais chose not to do so, sticking to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which were better investments and easier to grow.

However, the Cinderella of grapes was destined to survive and thrive somewhere else. Starting in the 1850s,  just a few years  before the appearance of phylloxera in France, Chilean producers imported cuts of all Bordeaux grapes. They did so, like many others, to replicate the wonderful wines of Bordeaux. Cuts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère were planted all over Chile. But here, Carménère didn’t shine on its own either.  See, the Chileans planted all these varieties, together, in a field blend and not separately as they do today, this resulted in Carménère being mistakenly labeled as Merlot.  The truth is, both grapes are siblings and share some common characteristics. But Carménère matures 3 to 4 weeks later and its leaves turn red during the fall. Because of these facts, Chilean growers started talking about 2 types of Merlot, calling CarménèreMerlot Chileno” or Chilean Merlot.  It was not until 1994, that French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot discovered, during a visit to Chile, that most of this variety known as Chilean Merlot was in fact Carménère.  A year later, Chilean authorities recognized publicly their mistake and added Carménère to their list of grape varieties allowed by law.

Genetically, Carménère is a cross of Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, having Cabernet Franc as a parent, made Carménère a close sibling of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Carménère shares with them its typical, green herbaceous notes from pyrazines, especially the spicy jalapeño, mint and green pepper found in most Carménères. Carménère also shares with Merlot its plushness, and ripe black fruit flavors that include: plum, blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry notes.  However, Carménère requires more warmth and plenty of sunshine and this is why it does better in Chile than in its native Bordeaux. It’s early budding and likes extra hanging time, deciding its ideal picking time is key to reflect the different styles, with two styles coexisting, the traditional or overripe Carménère, made so to mute the green notes from pyrazines and focusing in its black fruitiness character and the modern style which is refreshing spicy and elegant, showing hints of the pyrazines/green notes.

It took Chilean producers plenty of time and much trial and error to finally figure it out! Today, their aim is to obtain beautiful black fruit, keeping fresh acidity, balanced alcohol, matured tannins and just a touch of Carménère’s herbaceous, vegetal and spicy notes. As you may imagine, sites in Chile are very important, Carménère does not like fertile soils, and it’s mostly planted in decomposed granite, stony gravel and clay (iron rich) soils. It doesn’t like too much water either, as this will exacerbate its green character. Optimal trellising of the vines is used to aid grapes to reach perfect maturity (both in fruit and tannin), and green leafing to control its natural vigor. 

There are over 10,000 hectares of Carménère planted all over Chile, yet it does better in these top wine regions: Colchagua and Cachapoal in the O’Higgins region, Maule and Maipo. Top Carménères come from the appellation of Apalta, in Colchagua, which has a unique microclimate for this grape; other important enclaves include: Palmilla, Marchigüe, Santa Cruz, Peralillo and Nancagua. Famous are the wines from Peumo, located in Cachapoal, known for their structure and ability to age for 15 + years. Pichidegua, San Vicente and Las Cabras are also very good spots, all located in the “Entre Cordilleras” or between two mountain ranges in Chile. In Maule, further south, we find spots such as San Javier, Pencahue and Talca by the Maule River; Molina and Sagrada Familia by the Teno River and Cauquenes.

Stylistically, Carménère yields delicious medium to full body reds, with ripe black fruit, featuring notes of blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry, all of these blended with a touch of leafy freshness from green pepper, kale,  jalapeño or tomato leaf notes. With barrel aging, Carménère will also show vanilla, chocolate, espresso, grilled meats and soy sauce flavors. One of the things I truly love about Carménère is its texture, while Merlot is smooth and plummy, Carménère has a delicious fleshness/meatiness on the palate that makes it an excellent food match, not only to all types of beef and pork dishes (especially BBQ) but also to many vegetarian dishes, such as corn empanadas, vegetable quiche, grilled portobello mushrooms, artichoke pizza, etc. Carménère, like its siblings, also has tannin that provides backbone to its wines, without being as angular as Cabernet Sauvignon. In Chile, it is equally vinified as a varietal (on its own)  but also in blends, providing them with texture, freshness and spice. Besides Chile, where it has become a flagship, there are plantings of Carménère in North East Italy and in Jiaodong, China, where it is known as Cabernet Gernischt.

And now, here are my wine recommendations: 

I was lucky enough to receive plenty of samples, so selecting the final six was not easy. I made sure to select wines in different price points and from different regions, including both the classic and modern styles. While researching for this article I encountered the perfect definition of Carménère as “a jalapeño chocolate bomb”, indeed, if you try them, you will find these notes in most wines made from this variety.

Primus Carménère 2020, Apalta, Colchagua, $20.99
Made from organic grapes, this chewy red was aged for 12 months in 18% new French barrels, it shows ripe plum and blackberry notes, with balsamic hints, a dash of green jalapeño and dark chocolate bits from oak.  Medium plus bodied with grippy tannins that provide tension and structure to what it could be described as a classic or traditional style of Carménère.

Viña San Esteban In Situ Carmenere Reserva 2021, Valle del Aconcagua $13
Hearty yet so smooth, this red included 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend and is aged in both French and American oak for 12 months. This expansive red shows black cherries, cumin, black pepper and tomato leaf notes. Very balanced tannins lift up the gorgeous finish.

Morandé Carménère Vitis Unica 2021, Maipo $20
A powerbomb red from Cabernet Sauvignon’s own territory: the Maipo Valley. This luscious red  was aged in 2,000 and 4,000 liters foudres (80%) and the rest in French barrels. So fruity, rich and silky, showing plum compote and pomegranate notes,  with spicy cinnamon and roasted coffee bean hints. This is a modern style of Carménère. 

Los Vascos Cromas  Carménère Gran Reserva 2020, Colchagua $23.99
Made from 100 %  Carménère, this appetizing red is saturated with ripe plum and boysenberry fruit, combined with notes of nutmeg, graphite and roasted green pepper. So delicious and smooth, it reminds me of Malbec.

Terranoble Carménère CA2 Costa 2020, Colchagua (Costa) $36
Fleshy red made from grapes grown in granite and clay soils, this single vineyard wine was aged for 16 months, in a mix of foudres and new 300 liters barrels. It shows appetizing blackberry and ash notes, with spicy mint notes from pyrazines and a vibrant finish. Dazzling!

Montes Wings Carménère 2020, Apalta, Colchagua $55
Outstanding red made with grapes from the Apalta vineyard which includes 15% of Cabernet Franc, planted in granite soils. This wine was aged for 18 months in 70% new French oak barrels. One of the finest Carménères I tasted lately, showing  blueberry and blackberry notes with black pepper and garrigue hints. So elegant and linear, with refined tannins, this one will definitely improve with cellar aging. 

Don’t you think it’s time to give all of these a try? I hope you do. Until the next one. Cheers! Silvina.

#thoughtsoflawina #Carménère #Chile #DrinkupAmerica #drinkchile #chileanreds