The Changing Face of Carmenère

For the past two decades, the wine industry has accepted that Carmenère is the de facto signature grape of Chile—like another Bordeaux variety, Malbec, in neighboring Argentina. But unlike Malbec, with its ripe, juicy fruit and soft mouthfeel, Carmenère lacks an immediate likeability factor, carrying a pronounced green note from its high concentration of methoxypyrazines. When blind tasting Carmenère wines, those notes of jalapeño or bell pepper are expected and have become strong indicators for the variety in Chile, along with ripe or even jammy black fruit flavors.

But Chilean vintners are increasingly expressing a different side of this variety, one that is subtler and more balanced. Many are using less new oak, fruit is fresher, and the sharp green note that was once a dead giveaway for Carmenère is muted, stepping back to become a more harmonious part of the wine’s aromas. Why is the face of Carmenère changing, and how should wine professionals understand the potential of this classic variety in its adopted home? Tracing the history of Carmenère in Chile and winemakers’ changing approaches in the vineyard and cellar illuminates the character of this essential—and surprising—grape.

Revival From Obscurity

The stereotypical style of Carmenère is a direct result of the grape’s winding history from France to Chile. Though Chile’s winemaking history dates back to the 1500s with the País grape (known elsewhere as Mission, Listán Prieto, and Criolla), Bordeaux varieties, including Carmenère, arrived in South America in the 1850s, many brought by elite Chilean families who wanted to mimic the style of wine they drank in Europe. Upon arrival in Chile, vines were not distinguished by variety. Rather, vineyards were co-planted, designated either “Bordeaux red” or “Bordeaux white” and used to create a field blend; varietal labeling was not yet common. Bordeaux grapes came to dominate Chile’s vineyards even as much of the wine produced in the 1900s was vinified in bulk, and as vintners came to know their vineyards better, they slowly began identifying vine varieties.

Meanwhile, phylloxera came to devastate Europe’s vineyards, reaching Bordeaux in 1869. Tasked with replanting the region’s vineyards, most winemakers opted out of including Carmenère among their vines. Besides the fact that Carmenère was difficult to graft, the variety’s long, late ripening period made it a risky financial investment in the moderate, maritime climate of Bordeaux. More often than not, Carmenère simply could not ripen. By the late 1900s, most assumed that Carmenère was extinct.

As foreign investment poured into Chilean wineries in the 1980s and the country’s military dictatorship lifted in 1990, the country had a new chance to create quality wines. By this time, vintners had distinguished vine varieties from one another and were keen to varietally bottle these wines. Oddly, the country seemed to have two kinds of Merlot planted in its vineyards, with similar leaf and grape cluster shapes but different ripening behaviors and leaf colors. Winemakers simply dubbed the outliers—which ripened later and boasted red-hued leaves in the fall—“late harvest Merlot” or “Chilean Merlot” and blended the two together.

That was until French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot visited Chile in November 1994. At Viña Carmen in the Maipo Valley, Boursiquot encountered these “Chilean Merlot” vines, which didn’t look like any Merlot he had ever seen. The color of the shoot tips and twisted flowers prompted Boursiquot to recognize that these vines were not Merlot at all, but Carmenère—a variety he had never before seen in a vineyard, according to a June 2016 interview with Decanter China. Upon returning to his research facility, Boursiquot confirmed the theory that pre-phylloxera Carmenère was indeed hiding in Chile’s vineyards. (A similar discovery later happened in Italy’s Veneto, where vines labeled as Cabernet Franc were revealed to be Carmenère as well.)

Essentially, Chilean winemakers were presented with a variety assumed to be defunct and left to figure out how to work with it. As of 2017, Carmenère ranks as the third most planted red grape in Chile, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the only other country with any meaningful concentration of Carmenère vines is China. For 24 years, Chilean vintners have been experimenting with best practices in both vineyard and cellar.

Carmenère vines at Casa Silva's Los Lingues Vineyard in Colchagua, Chile (Photo credit: Geoff Kruth)

“I think in Chile we have been—and still are—learning about the right way to work with Carmenère,” says Magdalena Mendoza Jordan, the winemaker for TerraNoble. “We didn’t realize how important it was to choose the right vineyard sites, so most of the fruit we were producing was not achieving its best quality. The wines were not very concentrated, and green notes and green tannins were predominant. Most producers thought that the only way to work those pyrazines was to cover them with oak or harvest overripe grapes with mature, jammy fruits. In both cases, the varietal identity of Carmenère was missing.”

When , the Argentina and Chile brand specialist for importer Vine Connections, tastes trade buyers on Carmenère, she knows what they expect. “Everyone’s first perception of Carmenère is chocolate-covered green bell peppers,” Butler says. “It marred many perspectives of Carmenère as a variety.” But having lived and worked in Chile even before working with these wines in the US market for the past five years, she has seen a huge evolution. No longer is the Carmenère category filled solely with cheap, fruity wines with sharp green notes, or full-bodied oak bombs that retail for over $100. These wines can be characterful, nuanced, and surprisingly balanced.

Viticultural Approaches

Because Carmenère was mistaken as Merlot for so long, vintners initially continued to work with the two grapes in the same way. Ironically, they couldn’t be more different. Merlot is an early-ripening variety (usually picked in March) that needs plenty of water and more shade due to its sensitive skins. When Carmenère is treated this way, its sharp pyrazines stick out like a sore thumb.

“Carmenère is not an easy grape variety to work with,” says Andrea León, Technical Director for Lapostolle Wines, “and it thrives in very few and specific places in Chile.” The importance of site cannot be overstated. Warm vineyards with sunny conditions that last well into the fall are essential for high-quality Carmenère. “Carmenère is a late-ripening variety that, without a doubt, needs more hot days than other varieties in order to ripen,” asserts Sebastian Ruíz, Chief Winemaker for Viña Tarapacá. Cooler climates (as well as cooler vintages) will result in underripe grapes with higher levels of pyrazines, and late-season rain will damage still-hanging Carmenère grapes.

Poor soils also help counter the grape’s vigorous nature. “Carmenère doesn’t do well in deep or fertile soils,” Mendoza notes, “because the vine will focus on its canopy more than fruit, which then won’t ripen enough.” A well-drained mix of stony soils with clay is ideal, also serving to give the vines a controlled supply of water.

Carmenère vines in stony soils at Casa Silva in Colchagua, Chile (Photo credit: Geoff Kruth)

“Carmenère can be ‘squeezed’ more with regards to irrigation deficit,” says Matias Cruzat, the winemaker for Viña San Pedro’s 1865 Winery, who places the variety somewhere between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in terms of water needs. “With this, we will be able to produce a great wine, since the most important thing during the process is vegetative balance versus production quantity.” While Carmenère is grown in several pockets of Chile, including the Maipo, Maule, and Cachapoal Valleys, its finest sites are located in the Colchagua Valley. The newly dubbed Apalta and Los Lingues DOs are ones to know for Carmenère, which achieves that coveted balance between power and finesse on sloped hillside vineyards or flatter, lower ones. But other parts of Colchagua are interesting as well. TerraNoble, for instance, creates two Carmenère wines from opposite ends of the valley to explore the terroir of Colchagua through the grape; CA1 and CA2 juxtapose the differences between the inland Andes zone of production and the coastal-influenced Costa zone, respectively.

Steps taken during the growing season are also important in order to guide Carmenère toward a well-ripened, balanced style. Green harvesting helps manage yield, and leaf thinning exposes berries to the sun for ripening, which simultaneously diminishes pyrazines. Depending on desired style and vineyard location, a winemaker may choose to do more or less leaf thinning, either on the morning or afternoon sun-facing side of the vines. “We practice leaf thinning to the side that is exposed to the morning sunshine because it is more gentle than the afternoon sun, which can damage the skins of the grapes,” Mendoza says. León, on the other hand, practices just a bit of leaf thinning on the afternoon side, as the Apalta Valley is known for its sun exposure.

Finally, the timing of harvest plays a huge role in the style of Carmenère produced, though winemakers still debate the variety’s “optimal” harvest time. Grapes picked earlier will generally have higher levels of spicy, green pepper-like pyrazines, along with lower potential alcohol and higher acidity, while grapes picked later will be higher in sugar and more fruit forward. In a reversal from the days of harvesting Carmenère early, like Merlot, for a time, vintners harvested grapes too late. Today, many winemakers are looking for the Carmenère sweet spot: ripe fruit, subtle herbal or roasted pepper tones, moderate-plus alcohol, and fresh acidity. Most agree that this ideal moment arrives in late April or May, though the range can swing from March to June.

“It’s important to find the right moment to pick the grapes: ripe but not overripe,” Mendoza notes, “because [with overripe grapes], instead of having the character of the variety, you will get sweeter, jammy notes.” Adds León, “Carmenère, when overripe, becomes very heavy and plump. The acidity levels rocket down and it becomes quite dull.” Arnaud Hereu, Winemaker at Odfjell Vineyards, prefers to harvest very early in order to make a specific style of Carmenère. “We may be the earliest to harvest Carmenère in Chile—around the 10th of March,” he says, noting that earlier Carmenère harvest dates are a trend among Chilean winemakers. While Hereu admits that the wine is greener when picked early, his goal is to maintain Carmenère’s acidity.

Vinification Techniques

Before Chilean winemakers knew how to work with Carmenère in the vineyard, many undertook the tough job of molding the variety into a particular style in the cellar. Now, in a good vintage, the difficult part is theoretically over by the time the grapes arrive at the winery. “The best moment to work Carmenère’s pyrazines is in the vineyard,” Mendoza says. “If the vines are planted in the right place and managed in the right way, the fruit will probably be good enough that it won’t be necessary to practice any ‘makeup’ in the cellar.” Carmenère bunches are typically destemmed and cold-soaked in order to extract color, aromas, and flavor before fermentation. Some winemakers, like Ruíz, like to prolong that extraction with continued maceration post-fermentation as long as the fruit is healthy, while others choose to avoid the potential of alcohol extracting green tannins from seeds.

While vintners are relying less on new oak to define the character of Carmenère wines, many agree that restrained use of old or new oak works well with the variety. “In my opinion, Carmenère is very well suited to oak aging, and it gives it a unique flavor,” Cruzat notes. Though most of the winemakers interviewed age their Carmenère wines primarily or entirely in oak barrels—with the exception of Hereu, who does not use oak—very few taste overtly of new oak. Gradually, this is becoming the new norm for Carmenère wines.

The New Carmenère

Pyrazines will always be present in Carmenère and are therefore a reliable indicator when tasting. Even winemakers looking to craft more balanced styles of Carmenère recognize the importance of this trait. “The spice and herbs are part of the personality of Carmenère,” León says, “and losing them means losing that spicy, savory character that very few grape varieties can have. We have to learn how to embrace this character and make it part of its complexity.” Some continue to make Carmenère wines that are ripe and plummy; others look for a style that is spicy and bell pepper-driven.

But more and more, Chilean vintners are seeking a middle ground for Carmenère, one that combines ripe red and black fruit with subtle notes of freshly cut grass, mint, savory herbs, or roasted pepper. Oak may be evident, but so too are notes of turned earth or black rock, black pepper, or canned tomato. Though the warm vineyards necessary to ripen Carmenère tend to create wines with moderate-plus to high alcohol, the acidity and tannins (soft, but firmer than Malbec) can create a structural backbone that brings balance to the wine. “People must give Carmenère a chance,” Cruzat urges. “It is nothing like the Carmenère that was produced 20 years ago.” And indeed, Chile isn’t even 25 years into its work with Carmenère as a distinct, noble grape variety. It’s time to pay closer attention to these wines.

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