Discussion of Chilean viticulture would not be complete without the notation of a varietal called Carmenere. The vineyards of Chile, mostly planted with Bordeaux vines a century and a half ago, are pre-phylloxera, which means the vine blight that wiped out virtually all of the vineyards of Europe in the latter years of the 19th century never got here. As a result, there are some varieties of French grapevines thriving here that no longer exist in France or that still grow there only to a very limited extent.
One of these is Carmenere; originally from France and now almost extinct there, it is noted for its deep color and fruit character, very similar to Merlot and its aromas and tannins that often replicate Cabernet Sauvignon. For many years, Carmenere was thought to be a clone of Merlot but that has recently been identified as a separate variety from the Cabernet family of vines. It has been common practice for this grape to be interspersed with Merlot in the same vineyard. In fact, until modern vine identification techniques only recently revealed the true identity of this variety, many Chilean vintners had no idea it was in their vineyards. Further, the Chilean government did not recognize Carmenere as a variety until the 1996 vintage. As a result, often Carmenere is sold as Merlot. Winemaking in Chile has undergone possibly the most dramatic technological revolution in the wine world. Wineries that were for decades underfunded and equipped with vats of cement or local rauli, the evergreen beechwood, have for the most part, found investors willing to commit to the long-term future of the Chilean wine industry, thus equipping new wineries with state-of-the-art facilities.
Midway through the nineteenth century, Carménère was one of several noble vines planted extensively in Médoc near Bordeaux. Carménère was a key component in the appellation’s great wines until the scourge of phylloxera devastated France in 1860 changing the grape’s destiny.
Just like Chilean viticulture today, the history of Carménère is rooted in the country of supreme wine tradition, knowledge and development, France. Great Médoc wines have always arisen from the intricate blending of several different grape varieties. Cultivated within a single vineyard, under the Chateaux principle, the proportions of grapes used from the range of varieties available bring about unique wines.
Vineyards in nineteenth century Bordeaux were planted with Carménère and other local varieties such as Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In 1860 phylloxera attacked and laid waste French vineyards before helpless winegrowers’ eyes. Bordeaux had to start afresh. Replanting began in earnest using pest and, specifically, phylloxera resistant American rootstock. Carménère, like every other variety, had to adapt not only to the new conditions but also to more demanding and controlled vineyard practices that needed to resuscitate a broken industry.
Carménère performed poorly. 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.
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.
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”
Prosperous, visionary entrepreneurs convinced of Chile’s outstanding potential for viticulture traveled to Bordeaux 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.
Chile, a naturally protected land Geographically, Chile 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. The pest has never managed to traverse Chile’s insurmountable natural defenses. It has not managed to cross the majestic Andes Mountains, nor the Pacific Ocean nor the arid Atacama Desert. Antarctica blocks
passage from the south.
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 new home in sun-soaked, naturally protected valleys. Charmed by the sun, Carménère flourishes here and yields its finest fruit. Carménère was phased out and replaced with Merlot in Bordeaux, in Chile meanwhile, Carménère became known as a late Merlot clone. Here it was also referred to as Chilean Merlot, given the characteristics of its aromatically fruity and spicy wine – kind, sweet and soft in tannins.
Carménère, nevertheless, belongs to the Cabernet family. One of the first pointers linking the parentage of the two, after observing the similarity in the shape of the leaves, was that in France Carménère is also known as Grande Vidure, where Cabernet Sauvignon is classified as Petite Vidure due to the difference in the size of the grape.
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: “Carmenere’s wines resemble those of Merlot for their roundness and suppleness, and they approach Cabernet Sauvignon for their aromas and tannins… The wines 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, 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.
Patrick Léon, winemaker at Chateau Mouton de Rothschild, Opus One and Almaviva noted, “The proportion of Carménère in Almaviva has grown significantly. It is now the second wine, after Cabernet Sauvignon, and is more abundant than the rest of the better-known varieties from Bordeaux, such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. With the Carménère we get more maturity in the tannins, a rounder, more elegant less wild wine”.
Carménère, once rooted in France, now Chilean at heart 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 Carmenere’s 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, originally French but now Chilean at heart, gathers up the affability and warmth of this land and offers it to the world through its ripe fruit.
“(The Carménère) speaks of the Chilean mountain air settling on the vineyard at night, bringing the cherry flavors into a darker succulence, of the sea breezes bringing their own sort of austerity to the setting of the fruit”. Joshua Greene, Wine & Spirits
Chile’s wine styles run the gamut from light, fresh and fruity whites to sophisticated, harmonious reds suitable for extended ageing.
THE WINE LAWS
Indications of Designation of Origin (geographic origins) may appear on the label if at least 85% of the wine is produced with grapes that come from that geographic area. Only names of government approved grape varieties and zones may appear on the label. If a harvest year is included, 85% of the wine must be obtained from that harvest. If the words “estate bottled” are used, the vineyard, vinification process and bottling must all take place in the same geographical area as understood in the Designation of Origin.
Estate bottled may only be used on a label if the bottling plant and vineyard from where the grapes originated are located in the area stated in the indications of origin.
Residual sugar may be stated as the following:
A: Dry, Sec or Seco – not above four grams per liter (or no more than nine grams per liter when the acidity is very high – in this case residual sugar can be up to nine but not more than two grams per liter over that of the acidity.
B: Medium Dry, Demi-Sec or Semi Seco – no more than 12 grams per liter (or 18 grams per liter when the total acidity corresponds to that expressed in letter A.)
C: Medium Sweet, Moelleux or Semi Dulce – when the residual sugar is over 12 and reaches a maximum of 45 grams per liter.
D: Sweet, Doux or Dulce: When the content of residual sugar is at least 45 grams per liter.
New G.I. – Andes, Costas (Wines produced in proximity to Andres or coast and Entre Cordilleras produced between the Andres and the lower coastal range.