The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Carmenère – A grape with limits ~ Saturday, August 6th, 2011
At home in Chile (but with provisions): Why is it that emerging fine winegrowing nations seem to need a ‘trump grape’ to promote themselves? Is to stand out from the crowd? A way of crafting something of singular quality, as in the case of (premium) Malbec grown in Argentina? Perhaps it’s a little of both. Either way, for Chile, the ‘trump grape’ is Carmenère. In centuries past, Carmenère was found throughout Bordeaux and other parts of southern France, but was phased out at the beginning of the twentieth century. How it found its way to Chile will always remain something of a mystery, though it was probably brought over sometime in the nineteenth century, along with all the other multi-thousand cuttings that were transported during this period. Until 1996, however,Chilean winegrowers had just assumed Carmenère was a variation of Merlot. The two grapes do look awfully alike, though for the written record I think Merlot is vastly superior.
However, this is not to suggest that Carmenère is incapable of being crafted into truly great wine. On the contrary, when grown in the right places – it should never be irrigated and must always be planted in the driest of spots – Carmenère can really come into its own. Of particular importance is to keep yields as low as possible, otherwise the wine will taste of nothing but green pepper and underripe cassis. Such aromatics and flavours have often led me to believe that Carmenère is best suited for marginal blending, rather than playing a dominant role in the wine. And it does blend extremely well, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon, adding a lovely perfume to the wine, provided, once again, that the grape is cropped as minimally as possible.
On its own, however, Carmenère almost always seems to show its limitations. In fact, I would even go so far as to state that Carmenère is a grape that needs to be blended. On the premium end, even ten percent Cabernet Sauvignon can result in an entirely different wine, one that will not only taste better, but will also age longer. Except for only the most expensive examples, I have often observed that Carmenère will not age for more than just a couple of years. Perhaps this will change, particularly as all the new plantings since 1996 become more mature. In the meantime, what should Carmenère taste like? Make no mistake: the cassis is always there; however, as long as it’s phenolically ripe, the wine should taste great, offering other aromatics of pseudo-fragrant plums, blackberries, light herbs, and spice. These notes should extend well onto the palate, of which Carmenère should always reward with full-bodied flavours, firm tannins, and a reasonably lengthy finish. After all, like I mentioned before, Carmenère is, indeed, fully capable of producing truly great wine.