What is Carmenere?

If Malbec is Argentina’s “signature” red grape varietal in the minds of most wine drinkers, then Carmenere is Chile’s. OK then, we now know that its the name of a specific grape varietal, what else?

Just like Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, Carmenere is from the Bordeaux region of France.  Today though, if you were to ask a sommelier to name the grapes allowed to be blended into red Bordeaux, they would probably name Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot… no Carmenere.  That’s because the phylloxera, a root louse that kills the vine, wiped out all the Carmenere in Bordeaux in the late 1800’s.  Many considered it extinct.

Today the grape thrives in Chile and is capable of making outstanding, food-friendly, delicious and age worthy wines.  When French vintners took their grape cuttings over to South America, Carmenere got mixed in with Merlot because the leaves and grapes look very similar.  Looks the same, but tastes very different, especially when not allowed to come to complete ripeness.  The fruity flavors of Carmenere are similar to Merlot too, but under-ripe Carmenere and be very green and herbal.

Through DNA tasting in the early 1990’s it was discovered that much of “Merlot” in Chile was actually Carmenere.  Today this phoenix of a wine grape is propagated, grown and vinified as a unique varietal makes some wonderful wines, because when fully ripened (it ripens later than Merot the green beean and bell pepper notes evolve into delicious nuances of peppercorns and savory dried herbs.  Imagine a cross between Cabernet Franc and Merlot and you’re close to Carmenere’s flavor profile.