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Carmenere

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It’s a classic red grape from Bordeaux which doesn’t grow much of it anymore. It’s a grape which came out of nowhere to push itself into the ranks of the finest. It is called Carmenere and Chile is calling it its breakout variety.

The southern hemisphere—Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, etc.—does not have its own indigenous grapevines. That means the current vineyards had to have been seeded by immigrants, that is, Europeans looking for solace, adventure, etc. somewhere outside Europe. A bunch of them were French and they brought French varieties, including many native to Bordeaux. We know Bordeaux has lots of Cabernet and Merlot and these, mainly Cabernet, were brought over at one time or another in droves.

One wave of emigration coincided with the aftermath of phylloxera, a bug which devastated Europe’s vineyards. Phylloxera was eventually stymied by grafting, a process which physically linked one species of grapes with another. Many varieties survived this linking while others did not (much like some human’s immune system being more resistant than another’s). The former are planted worldwide while the latter survive basically in enclaves. Carmenere is one of these latter. Chile has the vast majority of the grape in its vineyards.

Carmenere basically died out in Bordeaux because of this. But the vines brought to Chile, which does not have phylloxera and whose vines therefore do not need grafting was the vinous promised land. No problem? Problem. Folks who brought Carmenere were jesfolks and not ampelographers. Jesfolks grew Carmenere and thought they were either Cabernet franc or Merlot, other Bordeaux varieties.

Ampelographers are specific folks who study grapes and who know the difference—by looking at the leaves, by seeing differences in bunch size and shape, etc.--between different varieties. About a decade or so ago these specialists examined many Chilean vineyards and noticed something interesting. Winemakers made wine from Carmenere and found distinct differences between them and Cabernet and Merlot. In a very interesting confluence of marketing and plant science, Chile had a new grape, one no other country had. In 1998, Chile had a verifiable total of almost 2,900 acres of Carmenere planted. As of 2011, there were 23,500 acres planted. This represents 98% of the world’s total of Carmenere.

So what makes it special? If grown in the right place and made properly it demonstrates a fruity-leafy character that I find a shade more interesting than Chilean Merlot, all things being equal. But the track record is brief and any strong comments so far lack sand.

See for yourself. Try the Carmen, Araucano, Montes Alpha, Medalla Real, Tabali and Primus interpretations.

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