Chilean Carmenere

Since grow­ers have started treat­ing it with in­creas­ing re­spect, Carmenere has been on an up­ward tra­jec­tory in Chile – and the best is yet to come, re­ports Peter Richards MW

Decanter - - PANEL TASTING -

CarMeNere is the James Bond of wine grapes. it’s mys­te­ri­ous, with a past shrouded in con­jec­ture. No one knows how best to han­dle or con­tain it. it’s of­ten been on the ropes – for in­stance, when phyl­lox­era vir­tu­ally wiped it out in Bordeaux – but it has proved a dogged sur­vivor, pop­ping up in un­ex­pected places. it goes un­der many pseu­do­nyms, from ‘sh­e­longzhu’ (China) to ‘Mer­lot Chileno’ and (the best) ‘Black Bordeaux’ (italy).

But it’s Chile where the va­ri­ety has made it­self at home. af­ter phyl­lox­era, Bordeaux grow­ers proved re­luc­tant to re­plant Carmenere, be­cause it was finicky, late-ripen­ing and tricky to graft. But Chile was (and has re­mained) os­ten­si­bly phyl­lox­era free and has the kind of warm, dry cli­mate in which late-sea­son reds can thrive. When Carmenere ar­rived in the mid-19th cen­tury, mixed plant­ings were the norm and some­how it was sub­sumed into the ‘Mer­lot’ cat­e­gory, known by grow­ers as ‘Chilean’ or ‘late’ Mer­lot, and sold un­der the same moniker. hence the dis­tinc­tive, pep­pery style of Chilean ‘Mer­lot’.

th­ese days, Carmenere tends to be grown, made and pro­moted as a sep­a­rate cul­ti­var. Plant­ings have in­creased. and yet opinion within Chile re­mains di­vided. Many still be­lieve Carmenere to be fun­da­men­tally lim­ited, tricky to grow and good only for blends. Oth­ers point to Chile’s short track-record with it and ad­vise pa­tience.

Rapid progress

re­search has shed more light on the sub­ject. Yerko Moreno at talca Univer­sity has pro­vided an­swers to the long-stand­ing ques­tions about Carmenere’s poor fruit set and clonal di­ver­sity. Casa silva’s mi­cro-ter­roir project has pro­vided guid­ance on Carmenere’s most pro­pi­tious mi­cro­cli­mates (warm but with mod­er­at­ing in­flu­ences) and soils (well-drained but not too fer­tile). Other grow­ers are tak­ing Carmenere out of what were tra­di­tion­ally deemed the best sites for it (hot, cen­tral val­ley sites on deep al­lu­vial soils) and ex­per­i­ment­ing in markedly dif­fer­ent ter­roirs, of­ten with ex­cit­ing re­sults.

Cen­tral Colch­agua and Cachapoal have long been Carmenere heart­lands. Now though, it is spread­ing into cooler eastern (an­dean) or western (Pa­cific-in­flu­enced) ex­trem­i­ties. the likes of elqui, Li­marí, aconcagua and Curicó are all find­ing suc­cess – while Maipo and Maule lead the field. Wine­mak­ing is in­creas­ingly nu­anced, with less heavy-handed use of oak and ex­trac­tion.

For now Carmenere re­mains a bit-player, but it at­tracts dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­ter­est and has many fans. For a coun­try that of­ten com­plains about lack­ing iden­tity and nar­ra­tive, Carmenere of­fers an in­trigu­ing back-story and po­ten­tial for unique­ness.

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