Lost and Found: Carménère Varietal
History of Carménère
The history of Carménère varietal is as fascinating as it is happenstance! It was once a blending wine in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. It served a similar purposes as Petit Verdot does today – producing a deep red ink on wines. It was part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux. Carménère originates from the French word for crimson (carmin) which refers to the crimson color of the autumn foliage.
When the Phylloxera plague hit in 1867 destroying most of the vineyards in Europe, many thought the Carménère grape was extinct. It wasn’t until 150 years later that it was discovered that Chile had mistakenly preserved the Carménère grape thinking it was Merlot (from clippings planted from France). DNA confirmed it was the missing 6th varietal of Bordeaux.
Carménère grows mainly in Chile, specifically the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley and in the Maipo Province. It is also grown Italy, in Veneto and recently several wineries in Lodi, Napa and Calaveras are producing it, albeit in small quantities. Walla Walla also has some root stock growing in Carménère
Uniqueness of Carménère
As a blend varietal is has the deep ruby coloring and aromas of red fruits and berries. Tannins are softer and milder than a Cabernet Sauvignon, thus its use in blending to soft a strong Cabernet. Similar to a Merlot. Chile produces a 100% Carménère which has a cherry and fruity flavor but has traces of smoke and earthy notes with the inky coloration.
Where to get Carménère
In Napa one of wineries who has planted and blends Carménère to offer a unique “true Bordeaux” is O’Shaughnessy Winery. Their 2013 Howell Mountain uses all seven of the Bordeaux grapes (7th will be another story). Both Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni rated this wine as 95 points. Truly a wonderful wine, worthy of tasting and putting into your cellar.
I am personally not aware of anyone in Northern California producing a 100% Carménère wine but many are working to use it as an historical marker in their blending. Most 100% Carmenere wines are available from Chile and offer a unique “change of pace”.
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