Liquids: Carmenère

A show of hands, please: How many of you have ever heard of the carmenère grape? Sir, in the back, I see both of your hands—thank you. As for the rest of you, you are not alone. Most publications about wine ignore this grape or declare it all but extinct because carmenère’s revival is so recent, the press has yet to catch up. In fact, the story of carmenère is amazing. Though once the darling grape of Bordeaux, carmenère was nearly annihilated by phylloxera (read on), then resurrected in Chile where it was ridiculed and misidentified for nearly a century, only to be exonerated after DNA testing. Now it’s venerated as the Next Big Grape. Sounds epic, right? Indeed, if I were Mel Gibson, I might call this The Passion of the Carmenère.

But that was just the trailer. Here’s the full-length feature: Carmenère, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, was widely cultivated in Bordeaux’ Médoc district in the early 18th century, where it helped establish the reputations of its best properties (Cos d’Estournel, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and Margaux, to name a few). Then, just when everything was going great, along came phylloxera, a small, yellow root-feeding aphid that attacked European vines beginning in France in the 1860s, most likely by way of North American vine cuttings that were exchanged between nations. How much damage did it do? Well, according to Oxford, “in the history of agriculture it rivaled the potato blight of Ireland as a plant disease with widespread social effects,” wiping out vineyards throughout most of Europe and many economies with it. Mon dieu!

I won’t bore you with the details of the cleanup, but, needless to say, Europe recovered. When France replanted, growers in Bordeaux decided to exclude our friend carmenère—despite its plummy, rich flavor—because, among other reasons, it didn’t ripen fast enough in Bordeaux’s wet climate. However, thousands of miles away, Chile had been looking to France as a model of winemaking, and had taken cuttings of carmenère, along with Bordeaux’ other grapes (cabernet sauvignon and merlot) before the whole outbreak happened. By a fluke of nature, Chile’s natural topography—high elevations, little rain during growing season—proved phylloxera-proof, and carmenère survived. Somehow, however, carmenère got lost in the shuffle and mistaken for merlot.

Fast-forward 100 years to the 1990s, and Chile is making world-class, value-priced cabernets, but having mixed results with merlots, which often taste acidic and overly peppery. It took a French ampelographer, who studies the origins of different grapes and leaves, to discover that a lot of what was thought to be merlot was actually carmenère. Further proof came by way of a scenario best described as Forensic Files meets Falcon Crest: DNA testing was done in 1997 to confirm carmenère’s birthright. But it’s not entirely like merlot. Or cabernet. It’s something in between. While carmenère has great depth of deep purple color, a jammy-fruity-berry aroma, and soft tannins—just like merlot—it also seems to have more complexity and earthiness, like cabernet.

So those of you who didn’t raise your hands weren’t really in the dark. In fact, you’re just in time to pop a cork and discover this nearly forgotten grape. What to look for? For under $12 seek out Santa Rita “120,” Undurraga, Carmenère Casa Julia, Casillero del Diablo, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. For under $20 try Montes Cabernet Carmenère, Veramonte “Primus,” Undurraga Carmenère Reserva, and Arboleda. And for a splurge, why not pick up Terrunyo (around $28), Santa Rita “Triple C” ($45), or Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta ($55).

Two wines debut this spring made by Europeans who went to find their lost grape. The famous Bordeaux winemaking brothers, Jacques and François Lurton—sons of the illustrious André Lurton of Châteaux Bonnet, La Louvière, and Dauzac—are introducing Alka Carmenère ($55), and Tuscan pioneer Piero Antinori and Chilean partner Eduardo Matte will premiere a cabernet-carmenère blend next month whose unofficial name is Albis.

Which raises the logical question: Will Europe start growing carmenère again? Or is the memory of phylloxera too painful to bear? Sir, in the back, that was a rhetorical question—thank you. But stay tuned for the sequel.