Sunday, June 1, 2014

An Adventure with Carmenère

Reading old reviews and articles about Carmenère – even some that are not so old, in fact – one sees hope that the grape will, as it is improved and perfected by Chilean growers and winemakers, graduate from blending grape to a stand-alone varietal in its own right. Such an outlook appears, in 2014, quaint and nostalgic, rather like reading a scouting report about a college athlete after he is already a veteran of the big leagues.

Carmenère today accounts for some 10% of Chilean wine production. That may not seem like much, especially if compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which weighs in at over 40%. But compared to where it was just a little while ago, Carmenère is doing phenomenally; before 1997, it was not counted at all. Truly, Carmenère has come a long way in such a short amount of time.

In fact, the grape's recent ascendancy in Chile as a high quality varietal is just the latest leg of a much longer journey, begun in the plains of Bordeaux a couple hundred years ago. Carmenère was a minor celebrity in the Médoc as a blending grape. In the larger region it was, though not especially obscure, somewhat marginalized due to both the prominence of so many other grapes there and the difficulty of growing it properly. It requires more time than most varietals to ripen properly, and waiting for those extra days to get it just right opens up vulnerability to early frosts, which ruin everything. After phylloxera pulverized the region and the farmers more or less started over from scratch, they did not really bother with Carmenère again, even in the Médoc.

But right in the nick of time, just before the upheaval, some Carmenère vines found themselves aboard a ship headed for Chile. In that slice of the New World, some enthusiastic winemakers (and wine drinkers) were overseeing the creation of an Andean viniculture. French varietals of all sorts were brought over, planted, made into wine, tasted, refined, tasted again, refined again, and so on. It would be a long time until Chilean wine achieved the high quality that it has today, but Carmenère had found a new home in which it could safely await its moment to shine. Phylloxera never made its way to Chile, and the longer growing season there proved perfect for the varietal.

The story did not quite end there, however. There is a remarkable twist before the odyssey comes to an end. As Chilean wines became the focus of increasing attention in recent decades, concerns arose that certain vines producing what had been thought to be Sauvignon Blanc were in fact producing the inferior Sauvignon Vert. (The latter is also known as Sauvignonasse; the suffix –asse in French denotes a pejorative.) These concerns were confirmed by experts.

In the course of their investigations into the various Sauvignons, those same experts stumbled onto another item of confusion. They noticed that the leaves of many Merlot vines had an exceptionally pinkish hue compared to what is normal for the varietal. It was not long before the explanation presented itself: What makers (and, one can only assume, drinkers) of Chilean wine had always thought to be Merlot was in fact none other than our intrepid protagonist, Carmenère.

How such confusion came about is uncertain. Maybe some amateurs unloading the shipments from France back in the 1800s missed a label or something. But it really is remarkable how the mistake was not noticed much earlier. Carmenère takes a substantially longer time to ripen than Merlot, and in the glass tends to be a bit heavier, less fruity, and more floral than its erstwhile pretension.

But it is all too easy to jump to judgment about Chilean viniculture in the face of this snafu. Such luminaries in the wine world as Karen MacNeil, Jancis Robinson, and the late, great Frank Prial have all written about it without even raising an eyebrow as to the mix-up not being noticed sooner, and I think it is safe to say that they all know something – many things – that I do not.

Furthermore, this is not the only instance of Carmenère successfully masquerading as something else; the Old World has its own examples. We learn from Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine that in north-east Italy many vines of what was thought to be Cabernet Franc are in fact none other than our chameleonic friend. This is on the face of it no less egregious than the confusion with Merlot: yes, both Cabernet Franc and Carmenère started out jointly contributing to the prestige of the Médoc and larger Bordeaux; and yes, both share an etymological root (Cabernet Franc was once known as Carmenet in the Médoc; the root refers to the color carmine); but the real Cabernet Franc ripens somewhat early and is light, a bit less than medium bodied, and fruity while Carmenère ripens late and is dark, full-bodied, and herbaceous.

And yet, the experts pass no judgment. For that reason as well as more scriptural ones, neither shall I.

In any event the Chileans, or at least those whose Merlot was no such thing, found themselves in a real spot. Confirmation of their error came in 1994, right as a craze for Merlot was conspicuously burgeoning in the US (Chile's principle wine export market) and elsewhere, and as Chile's reputation in the wine world was set to grow. It was more than a small error: some estimates put the percentage of mistaken vines at 70% or more of the country's "Merlot". Initially there was a bit of a panic, including the human capacity for denial; authorities finally admitted the truth in 1997. And as late as 2001, Karen MacNeil and Frank Prial noted that many Chilean Merlots still contained a sizeable percentage of Carmenère.

But also by that time, a certain realization about the virtues of Carmenère came about. Cooler heads sat back and considered: If Chile’s reputation in the wine world has been growing in the past few decades, and if Carmenère has been a major part of Chilean production during this time, then is it not possible – likely, even – that there is much to be said for the varietal? It had a respectable history in one of the world's most venerated wine regions. The list of Chilean Merlots in which Carmenère was blended even after the public confession included the highest rated and most in demand. Clearly, this was no second-tier grape. Not to mention, the long Chilean growing season turned its late ripening from a liability into a perfect fit, and its abandonment elsewhere in the world gave it a uniqueness on which Chile could capitalize, a distinguishing factor with which the country could stand out.

Those cooler heads soon realized that what they had, far from a problem, was a golden opportunity. Their countrymen concurred. And Carmenère went almost overnight from unknown to denied to embraced.

So what exactly is this adventurous actor of ours? What does it taste like, what is its personality? What are we dealing with here? I tasted three Carmenères from different regions and of different ages.

Producer: Concha y Toro
Name: Casillero del Diablo Reserva
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Rapel Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2011
Tasted: March 26, 2014
ABV: 13.5%

The first of the three was a gift from my cousin for my birthday last summer, a 2011 Casillero del Diablo Reserva grown in the Rapel Valley. Seven months later, convinced that it was in bottle for exactly long enough, I opened it up, and indeed the age was perfect. The wine was a deep, dark purple, and a very fragrant one at that. In fact, it was pungent – in fact, it was more than pungent, much more. Having turned my back from the opened bottle for all of two seconds, I could smell it from across the room, without actually having poured any yet.

The aroma had light notes of citrus, vanilla, and leather. Very few reds were present. Perhaps I detected a note of deciduous fruit. On the palate, however, there were many reds out and about: strawberry, other berries, a hint of cherry. The aroma notes were also present in the mouth, and there was spice as well. These three facets of the wine's profile balanced each other out beautifully; it did a great job turning complex components into a single simplicity. The body was about average for a red with 13.5% ABV; it held the flavors well, and did not insert itself into play.

After aeration the aroma, without losing any of its earlier notes, picked up a great deal of reds. The palate lost much of the spice, gaining in its place a certain smoothness; the balance from earlier seemed to have recalibrated itself quite perfectly in light of this switch.

The 2011 Casillero del Diablo Reserva is, without question, an excellent Carmenère. It comes very highly recommended.

Producer: Viña Errázuriz
Name: Single Vineyard, Max Reserva Estates
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Aconcagua Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: April 10, 2014
ABV: 14.5%

A couple of weeks later I had the 2009 Max Reserva Single Estate Carmenère from Viña Errázuriz, from the Aconcagua Valley. It, too, had a purple tinge, though being two years older than the Casillero del Diablo it was less dark. The aroma contained deep reds, principally strawberry and cherry, with a little bit of herby spice. Very minimal notes of vanilla and toffee rounded it out. The palate was spicy, full of red fruits, rhubarb, strawberry – it almost, in the strangest way, reminded me of a Chianti. The flavor was heavy, quite befitting a wine with 14.5% ABV, but the body was actually medium. And, I underlined in my notes, the flavors worked great together.

After aeration, the only difference was that the palate had acquired a bit of a lighter tone; nothing else changed at all.

The 2009 Max Reserva was another great example of how a Carmenère, composed of disparate tones and tasting notes, expertly fits them together into one, unified, harmonious experience.

Producer: Odfjell Vineyards
Name: Orzada
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Maule Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2008
Tasted: April 16, 2014
ABV: 14%

Finally, a few days later, I sipped the 2008 Orzada Carmenère from Odfjell Vineyards in the Maule Valley. This wine looked brand new with deep, dark purple hues, but the nose and mouth could tell right away that it had been in bottle for a little while already. The aroma was of chocolate, vanilla, and leather, with floral musk. Not too many red fruits were present. The palate also lacked fruit, though it was bright, and mellow, with notes of toffee, chocolate, leather, coffee, and vanilla. Tannins were felt, and the wine was a tad heavy, though not too much. On the finish I detected strawberry – finally, a fruit!

After breathing for a while the Orzada’s aroma acquired some reds, lost the vanilla and florals, and mellowed out very pleasantly. The palate at this point had definitely become much more like the younger Carmenères; the rejuvenation was very clear. Red berries, strawberry, tannins joined a slight herby spice and the old notes of chocolate, leather, and florals, all together creating a harmonious whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

It is remarkable what a little aging in the bottle – and subsequent aeration – will do for a Carmenère. The breathing is more crucial as the wine sits in bottle for longer, but it suits the wine at any age, really. The herbs in the flavor give way to the fruits as it endures contact with the air, which only serves to illustrate the superb sophistication of the Carmenère. Its aptitude for uniting disparate elements – leather and strawberry?! – into harmony is really something special. For those who like to pair wine with food, just about any red meat will do, especially if grilled.

As I look back on those articles from a few short years ago, reading about all the high hopes that wine writers had for the varietal, I feel glad that Carmenère overcame the odds and achieved success in its own right. And indeed, those were not the easiest odds. Consider: it was a minor grape to begin with, overshadowed by giants in a land of giants; it was transported across the globe to a faraway land (even farther away before airplanes) where it was not clear that wine would ever have a place, while its remaining brethren were obliterated by phylloxera; it was completely and utterly forgotten about for almost a century and a half; and nearly the entire world’s first reaction upon its rediscovery was to recoil in unpleasant surprise. And in no time, it has risen to prominence and prestige, held highly by an entire country as a mark of distinction. Get your hands on some today to find out why. And enjoy.

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