Do you know the story of carménère? It’s one of our favorites to tell at the shop. If you aren’t familiar with it, buckle up, this is a fun one!
Carménère originated in Bordeaux, and for centuries acted mostly as a coloring agent. The name means “crimson,” for two reasons. First, it’s leaves turn a gorgeous crimson color (this will become important later in the story) very early in the season. Second, it produces wines that have a stunning crimson color that keep that color longer than most other grapes. As a blending grape, therefore, it helps the overall blend maintain its color after years of bottle ageing.
In the mid 19th century, disaster struck Bordeaux, and the rest of France, in the form of phylloxera. A tiny louse native to North America that feasts on the roots of grape vines, phylloxera decimated much of European grape growing for decades. Eventually, vintners learned that if they grafted American grape rootstock to European vines, they could keep the character of the grapes while producing a vine resistant to the pest.
Unfortunately for carménère, the none of the rootstocks available at the time would graft with its vine, and it was particularly susceptible to phylloxera. Being simply a blending grape, and therefore seen as expendable, grape growers gave up on reviving it. To French winemakers, carménère became a relic of the past.
Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, and Chilean winemakers are beginning to notice something odd. This strange vine with small berries and crimson leaves produces a savory, herbal, vegetal wine nothing like the merlot they’re calling it. Little did they know, but carménère had made its way to the New World before the outbreak of phylloxera in France. Chile itself has managed to avoid phylloxera to this day, meaning the grapes growing there are true, ungrafted Vinis Vinifera, or European grapevines.
The discovery that what vintners thought was a “late-ripening, crimson leaved, small-berried” version of merlot was actually a long lost bordeaux grape called “carménère” tracks with the huge advancements in quality for Chilean wine in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. At a certain point, winemakers could no longer reconcile the vast difference in the wines made from one “version” of merlot versus the actual grape.
Merlot has a very particular set of characteristics both in the vineyard, and the bottle. It has relatively large berries and ripens earlier than most other grapes. Remember earlier when we mentioned that the crimson leaves of carménère would come into play? Well, by turning crimson so early, the leaves lose the ability to photosynthesize, making it difficult for the vine to ripen the grapes. carménère can sometimes take all the way to May in Chile to ripen. That’s like harvesting in November in the northern hemisphere! In short, it took a bit of wishful thinking to confuse carménère and merlot for so long.
In November of 1994, a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Boursiquot, trained in Ampelography, or the study of grape leaves to identify the type of vine, worked together with the winemaker Claude Valat to determine that the grape thought to be a strange mutation of Merlot was in fact the long lost bordeaux grape, carménère!
This news did not please everyone. Instead, it caused a bit of a controversy. Merlot was at the time one of Chile’s biggest wine exports. Producers couldn’t very well keep selling what they now knew was not merlot as merlot, so the question became “do we focus on carménère and make it Chile’s grape, or do we pull it out and replace it with true merlot?”
It’s hard to fault either decision, and for many producers, the short term economic benefit of switching out-weighed the long term of giving the Chilean wine industry a grape of its own. Today, however, carménère from Chile has become an international star. At the shop, we absolutely love it and make it a point to introduce it to new palates. Medium bodied and full of both savory and fruity flavors, a good carménère is the perfect cold weather wine. It pairs gorgeously with the type of ingredients used in autumn and winter fare. Special ones have either a note of roasted poblano or fresh jalepeño, and sometimes both.
Stop on in and ask about this once-forgotten grape! We have all sorts of options and approaches from all over Chile. Happy (belated) Carménère Day!