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Rediscovering Chilean Carmenère

In less than 25 years, Chile’s Carmenère has undergone a radical transformation. Since its shocking discovery in 1994, the Carmenère grape has experienced a challenging adolescence that featured U-turns in style and production. In recent years, Chilean Carmenère has flourished as winemakers have gained a mastery of this unique variety that deserves attention.

Raising an Orphan by the Name of Carmenère

Carmenère disappeared from its native Bordeaux following the phylloxera outbreak in the mid-1800s. It was considered practically extinct until a fateful visit to Chile from French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot in November 1994.

As he walked through vineyards in Maipo, he noticed a small detail to some Merlot vines. A twisted stamen, to be precise. It revealed that these vines were, in fact, the long-disappeared variety of Carmenère.

That vineyard wasn’t unique. The variety had been unwittingly planted throughout Chile’s wine regions for almost 150 years. Carmenère had arrived in Chile in the 1850s along with a shipload of other varieties from Bordeaux. It had been planted around the country as “Merlot.”

With Boursiquot’s discovery, Chile suddenly became the heartland of a variety which no one had knowingly vinified for more than 100 years.

The revelation was not a surprise for many of Chile’s winemakers.

“We all called [our Merlot] ‘Merlot Chileno,’ because everyone knew something was different compared to the normal Merlot vines,” says winemaker Sebastian Labbé. He makes wine from the same Maipo vineyard where Boursiquot made the 1994 discovery, belonging to Viña Carmen and Santa Rita. “After the discovery, there was a long process of profiling all the Merlot vineyards around Chile at the time to see if they were Merlot or, in fact, Carmenère.”

The wineries of Santa Rita and Viña Carmen were quick to rename their Merlot bottlings as “Grand Vidure,” a synonym for Carmenère used in Bordeaux in the 19th century. However, it took a while for the greater industry to accept the new identity of its “Merlot Chileno.”

“We wanted to export our wine as Carmenère, but it was almost impossible at the beginning,” says winemaker Marco De Martino, whose family winery was the first to export the wine in 1996. “The government wouldn’t let us export it with Carmenère on the label because the variety still wasn’t legally recognized in Chile… So we had to use clever labeling, like ‘Cuvée Carmenère,’ until we managed to successfully argue for legal registration of the variety.”

Although some wineries embraced the new variety, many others remained in denial. Merlot was more lucrative and internationally appealing than the previously abandoned Carmenère. Some simply continued to bottle their Carmenère as “Merlot” well into the early 2000s.

In 1997, only 815 acres of the variety were registered on the official census. That number has steadily increased to 26,760 acres today. As Malbec took its position as the signature variety of neighboring Argentina, Carmenère began to be seen as Chile’s adopted protégée. But as Carmenère’s presence grew, producers faced a challenge: What is Carmenère, and how should it taste?

Although Carmenère had been rescued in Chile, its true journey of discovery was about to begin.

Bunches of red grapes, hanging at the vineyard, ready for harvest
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Growing Pains

“When we first started making Carmenère, knowing it was Carmenère, we didn’t know how to make it,” says Terranoble winemaker Marcelo Garcia. At their estate in Maule, more than half of their presumed Merlot vines proved to be Carmenère.

“But after several years of experimenting, we began to learn how to treat it in the vineyard,” he says. “We used to irrigate our Carmenère the same amount as our Merlot, for example, which is about once a week in the growing season… But we actually [learned] that Carmenère needs a lot less water, no more than once a month.”

This was a common mistake in those early days. It led to overly vigorous vines and a common green character in the wines. That led winemakers to explore extreme solutions.

“Because it had all these green flavors, we focused on harvesting really late to try to force it out through ripeness, with lots of leaf plucking, too,” says Francisco Baettig, winemaker at Viña Errazuriz in Aconcagua. The result, a common occurrence in the early 2000s, was a combination of both green jalapeño notes and a ripe, jammy fruit profile.

Not only were changes the irrigation and vineyard management key to Carmenère’s new identity, but ripeness is also fundamental.

“We used to harvest our Carmenère in May, with 15% ABV (alcohol by volume), and yet it would still have that cooked vegetal note like artichokes, says Baettig. “Today, though, we harvest at least a month earlier and at 13.5%, which gives us a lot more ageability and freshness with a typical spicy note, but no greenness.”

The wines of today are increasingly balanced, fresh and fragranced. This is thanks in part to finding the right sites with poorer rocky soils, rather than the heavy clay soils where Merlot is best suited.

Regions like Apalta, Marchigüe, Peumo and Maipo Andes are among the hot spots for top Carmenère. Producers that include Santa Rita, Carmen, Undurraga, Errazuriz, De Martino, Tabalí and Bouchon are keen proponents of this new style.

Greater balance is also being achieved through winemaking. “We do a cold maceration to get the aromas and colors without extracting the tannins, because we want a juicy finish, but still with all the color and aroma intensity,” says Felipe Müller, the winemaker at Tabalí who makes ‘Micas’ Carmenère in Peumo.

In addition to gentler extraction, recent years have seen producers use less new oak. Modern interpretations focus on fresh fruit expression and embrace a livelier, peppery style.

While it may have been confused for Merlot for many years, Chile’s Carmenère shows more similarities to Cabernet Franc in style. And as Cab Franc emerges as the new darling of Bordeaux varieties, perhaps it’s finally time for Carmenère’s moment in the sun.

Not only is this modern style of Carmenère ahead of the game, but it could hold an advantage with the changing climate.

“Carmenère is probably the Bordeaux variety that best survives the drought,” says Christian Sepúlvida, winemaker at Bouchon Family Wines in Maule. “So we’ve been using more Carmenère in our top Bordeaux blend, Mingre, over the years.”

Could climate change lead to a renaissance for Carmenère beyond Chile? There’s potential for it. Chile’s winemakers have laid down the groundwork for this serendipitous Bordeaux variety, and it’s paved an exciting new path for the future.