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
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.
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.