Midway through the nineteenth century, Carménère was one of several noble vines planted extensively in Médoc near Bordeaux. Carménère is named for the crimson or carmine hue of the wine and for the color its leaves turn in autumn. It is often called the “lost or missing grape of Bordeaux.” This vine was planted pre-phylloxera in France where it produced exceptionally fine wine.
Vineyard owner and Medoc magistrate, Armound d’Armilhacq, said of Carménère in 1867,“Its flavor is excellent. The taste is even better than the two Cabernets; the wine it produces reflects these qualities. It is mellow, yet full and rich in body. It mixes a rounder flavor. It lasts about as long, and, with age, improves toward perfection”.
Carménère tended to mimic the best characteristics of both Cabernet and Merlot. Although vigorous, Carménère frequently suffered from coulor or poor berry set making it a shy bearer. In the Bordeaux climate, Carménère proved sensitive at fruit set to the cold spring weather, which reduced yields and, as this grape variety has to be harvested so late, the region’s early autumnal rains impaired grape quality.
When phylloxera hit, Carménère was all but abandoned in France. After replanting began, financially distressed growers could not afford to gamble with varieties that wouldn’t produce consistent crops and Carménère was spurned in favor of others. So Carménère was overlooked by the region’s resurgent industry when choosing which varieties to cultivate. It was simply forgotten; not for the quality of its wines but because of its difficult nature. To this day, there are no truly significant plantings of Carménère in Bordeaux.
Part of the Cabernet family of vines (closer to Franc than Sauvignon), Carménère is often referred to as the Grande Vidure. Vidure comes from the French words Vigne Dure or hardy vine in reference to the tough nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. The name is still used today in some parts of Bordeaux where over 50% of the Medoc and Graves districts are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, known as Petit Vidure. “Grande” refers to the larger berry size of the Carménère as opposed to the smaller “Petit” berried Cabernet Sauvignon.
Prosperous, visionary entrepreneurs convinced of Chile’s outstanding potential for viticulture had traveled to Bordeaux in the mid 1800s in search of the best red grapes and brought many back with them. Several varieties including Carménère arrived in a big mix of vines to be planted in true Bordeaux style, emulating the French Chateaux use of various grape types in a single vineyard. Like many European immigrants, Carménère headed for far off lands in South America looking for a sunny climate and fertile soils. Unwittingly it saved itself from assured extinction.
Carménère was captivated by the exceptionally sunny climate and fertile soils of Chile. Carménère did well in Chile.
When the dreaded louse, phylloxera, burrowed its way through the vineyards of Europe and the rest of the world in the 1890s, Chile escaped the devastating plague. Protected to the north by arid desert, the Atacama, to the south by Antarctica, to the east by the high Andes and by the Pacific to the west, Chile never saw the louse. So Carménère, which had been taken to Chile by French winemakers hired by wealthy landowners in the 19th century, flourished in South America when it was only a fading memory in Europe.
Vineyard layouts and planting records were not particularly systematic during the 19th century in most countries and Chile was no exception. Since Carménère slipped into global obscurity after its removal from Bordeaux, it is not surprising that Chilean vintners lost the connection between the vine and its name. Carménère, once rooted in France, now Chilean at heart, prefers its fruit to ripen slowly and, in Chile, finds an ideal home.
Most Chilean growers mistook Carménère for Merlot or, more precisely for an unusual clone of Merlot. Carménère actually has more in common with Cabernet Franc (for which it was widely mistaken in northern Italy), but Franc was extremely rare in Chile and therefore not a candidate for confusion. Because Carménère is really quite distinctive as a plant, as a grape and as a wine, it was never thought simply identical to Merlot. Carménère leaves are clearly different than those of Merlot vines, and they turn bright red in autumn, so everybody knew that they were looking at something other than another Merlot when encountering it in vineyards. Eventually, Carménère came to be misidentified as “Merlot selection” or “Merlot Peumal,” a geographic reference to a valley south of Santiago in the Rapel Valley where lots of Carménère was grown.
The process of re-identification was triggered by the red wine boom of the early 1990s. Novice wine drinkers turning to reds tended to prefer wines with less hardness and tannin than they found in Cabernet Sauvignon, and thus Merlot became the grape of the moment. Chilean producers expanded plantings to meet the rising demand, and much of this was done with cuttings from their own vineyards.
As this effort was under way, French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot was brought to Chile as a consultant, and it was he who recognized Carménère for what it truly was. Boursiquot’s identification was confirmed by DNA profiling (which works on material from any living being, plants included) in 1997. The following year Carménère was officially recognized as a distinct variety by the Chilean Department of Agriculture. This enabled Chilean vintners to bottle wines under the Carménère name which, in turn, led to increased attention to how it could best be handled in vineyards and wineries. It is now understood that Carménère is extremely slow to ripen and that it must be picked not with the early-ripening Merlot but, rather, even later than the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. When Carménère is ripened fully and vinted skillfully, it is absolutely delicious. Many Chilean vintners now seek to position Carménère as “the Chilean grape.” Although the grape now seems as modern as the new millennium, it has an old and respected ancestry.
Throughout Chile’s wine regions, Carménère vines had been growing amid the Merlot. The vines are very similar, but the Carménère has subtle strengths that make its fruit distinctive. Once properly identified, Chilean winemakers soon began experimenting to see how it stood up as a varietal in its own right. They were delighted with the results. Here was a red wine that was fruity, lively, full of vigor and flavor. A bright future for this superb grape is now assured in its adopted land.
Chile, a naturally protected land geographically, is extraordinarily diverse. In local lore, when God created the Earth, on the final day it only remained to give life to this long, thin stretch of land, so he gathered up all the natural beauties left over from the rest of the planet and thus shaped the diversity of this singular country.
Divine intervention, along with importing disease and pest-free vines, has led to Chile being the only country in the world not to suffer phylloxera’s devastation. In addition to strong geographical barriers, the exceptional and stable climate of long dry summers provides this land a natural antidote to vineyard diseases, which has never escalated out of control in Chile. Carménère found its perfect home in sun-soaked, naturally protected valleys. Charmed by the sun, Carménère flourishes here and yields its finest fruit.
In Chile, Carménère was mainly planted in the sunny Rapel and Maule Valleys. The vine demanded uncommon care in the vineyard. Yields had to be controlled and grapes insisted on time to ripen to avoid excessively green notes.
Captivated by the long, sunny summers, Carménère faithfully delivered its best fruit, which rounded the world labeled Merlot. Its intrinsic friendliness, however, never failed to seduce.
Jean Bertrand Delmas, in his Ampelographical Assay at Chateau Haut-Brion in 1989, delivered the following description of Carménère: “Carménère wines resemble those of Merlot for their roundness and suppleness and they approach Cabernet Sauvignon for their aromas and tannins. The wine is long in the mouth, very harmonious, and presents an ensemble of exceptional qualities”
In the late 1980s, Chilean winegrowers joined the global drive of selling more markedly varietal wines and worked hard at classifying each type of grape and identifying the best soil to maximize each one’s potential.
In 1994, French leaf specialist or ampelographer, Jean Michel Boursiquot came to the Sixth Latin American Viticulture and Enology Congress in Chile and recognized the late clone as, in fact, Carménère. Since then, Carménère has reappeared in world markets and its development in Chile has been crucial to most of today’s great Chilean red blends.
Carménère prefers its fruit to ripen slowly under the Chilean sun from spring right through to fall, from the moment the first shoots appear to the time it is harvested. If the vine does not get sufficient sunshine Carménère will issue green, vegetative wines. Sometimes, the ripe tannins and sweetness of the fruit make it seem that the grapes are ready to pick, but it is Carménère aromas that dictate precisely when to harvest.
Carménère is noble and demanding when it comes to extracting quality. It prefers a balanced soil, one not too poor, not too fertile. It likes a soil that lets it develop gradually at its own noble pace. Weakly water retaining, clay loam soils need to be managed until shortly before harvesting so its fruit does not lose the distinctive qualities of the variety.
Carménère, now Chilean at heart, gathers up the affability and warmth of this land and offers it to the world through its ripe fruit.