In the mid-1990s, there were rumors of a lost bordeaux grape variety that had just been "discovered" in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. At the time, I paid little attention; the world seemed flooded with bordeaux wannabes. Little did I know that Chilean carmenère would, over the next 15 years, emerge as the one new-world red I truly love: a gorgeous, idiosyncratic varietal that has found its fullest expression only in exile from its native land.
The tale of carmenère's journey from southwestern France to South America is worthy of a mystery novel. The story begins in the mid-19th century, by which time Bordeaux winemakers had more or less settled on six kinds of grapes that could be blended together to make red bordeaux: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, and carmenère. The grape that gave them the most trouble was carmenère, which came to wine-ready ripeness weeks after the other bordeaux varieties. It was, for a time, considered worth the hassle for the depth of color and interesting herbal note carmenère brought to the bordeaux blend—that is, when the grapes were fully ripened. When they weren't, they were known to contribute an excess of a quality commonly identified as "green," meaning astringent and vegetal, reminiscent of green peppers. Then, the final straw: in the 1880s, after many of the vines in France were wiped out by a blight of phylloxera lice, French wineries began grafting vulnerable European vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock—a process that the stressed-out carmenère vines didn't take to well. That was the coup de grâce for carmenère in Bordeaux. Look at any wine textbook today, and it will tell you that red bordeaux is a blend of five grape varieties, not six.
Here the plot thickens. Some European winemakers, in the wake of the phylloxera blight, chose to make a fresh start in Chile, which already had a modest wine industry that had been importing vine cuttings from Bordeaux for decades. Winemakers there didn't, as a rule, keep close tabs on exactly which varieties they had planted, however. Today we're more inclined to identify a new-world wine according to the variety of grape it's made from—a syrah, for example, or a chardonnay—but in those days individual grape varieties and single-variety wines were not fetishized in the same way. To this day, the owners of many new-world vineyards that were planted around 1900 don't know what varieties they have, and those who hazard a guess sometimes get it wrong. Such was the case with Chilean carmenère, which was, for most of the 20th century, identified as Chilean merlot.
In the late 20th century, as consumers started to pay more attention to the kinds of grapes their wines were made from, some Chilean winemakers took a closer look at their vines and began to suspect that Chilean merlot was not, in fact, merlot. For one thing, it tasted different from other merlots; for another, it ripened late—so late, in fact, that the leaves on the vines turned bright red and even fell off before the fruit was ready for harvest. Some believed that the mystery of "Chilean merlot" was unraveled in 1991, when a visiting French scientist, Claude Valat, asserted (incorrectly) that Chilean merlot was probably another bordeaux variety, cabernet franc. It wasn't until 1994 that another French scientist, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, finally identified this enigmatic grape for what it is: the long-lost carmenère. Confirmation via DNA analysis soon followed.
That's when everything began to change. Equipped with a better understanding of the grape they'd been growing for years, some pioneering winemakers immediately embraced its quirks. Yes, carmenère can be offensively green—overpowered by that flavor of green pepper—when it's underripe, but bringing the fruit to full ripeness proved to be less of a problem in many of Chile's winegrowing regions than it had been in the comparatively cooler climes of Bordeaux. And green isn't always a bad thing. When carmenère is harvested at the right moment, its astringency becomes subtler and acts as a welcome counterpoint to the grape's fruity, plush, and juicy aspects. It also exhibits alluringly soft tannins that have led some to call it "cabernet sauvignon in silk pajamas," as well as, in many cases, a bright, balancing acidity, which always lends elegance to a big red. What you end up with is a wine with lots of fruitiness up front that magically turns dry and suave.
This particular convergence of qualities makes carmenère an excellent match for all kinds of foods. Some new-world reds taste awkward and overly sweet with steaks and roasts, but carmenère's full body stands up to rich meat dishes; then its dry finish pulls the wine back before it overwhelms the palate entirely. Conversely, ultra-elegant old-world reds often taste wimpy and washed out next to boldly flavored sweet-savory dishes, but carmenère's copious fruit lets it roll right over, say, roast duck with a tangy citrus sauce while still allowing the taste of the duck to come through.
Carmenère's recent history is both instructive and cautionary. In the past few vintages, some Chilean winemakers have suppressed the very qualities that make carmenère exceptional by pushing it further into the overoaked mainstream, the result being wines with more muscle than genuine character. Others are staying true to carmenère's inherent character while still producing a wonderful range of wines, with flavor profiles ranging from soft, lively, and minimally oaked to big, very ripe, tannic, and firmly structured. Many wines in the latter category will no doubt benefit from a few years of aging to allow their edges to smooth out.
There is nothing less than a Chilean wine revolution taking place right now: new grape-growing regions are yielding exciting wines, and winemakers are treating the grapes in creative ways. Let's just hope they don't get too creative with carmenère, a capricious, rewarding varietal that has finally come into its own.