When was the last time you popped open a bottle of Carmenère? For me, it was last week, thanks to Concha y Toro, who sent me two sample bottles. But prior to that, I have no idea. Why is that?
I like to think of myself as a wine explorer; someone who appreciates how vast the varietal landscape is, taking every opportunity to expand my horizons. So it was a little disappointing to face my wine stash reality:
While I’ve got a range of whites, reds, and rosés in my cooler – including sparklers, sweets, and a few natural wines, too – the racks are heavy with just a handful of varieties. Based on a quick survey, my current preferences are Italian white wines, French red wines, with a smattering of California thrown into the mix.
When did I become so boring?
With the arrival of these Carmenère samples, I had the chance to shake things up a bit: not only would I add some spice to my line-up of grapes, but I’d be traveling to a whole other continent. As I prepare for my final exam in the WSET Diploma in a few months, I wholeheartedly welcome this opportunity to revisit Chile and one of its hallmark varieties.
Note: these wines were provided to me as media samples. I received no other compensation, and the comments represent my own opinions.
The Intriguing Story of Carmenère
Originally from Bordeaux, Carmenère is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, the latter a cross between Basque varieties Fer and Hondarribi Beltza. Hondarribi Beltza, also known as Txakoli, is thought to be another offspring of Cabernet Franc. This means that Carmenère is simultaneously a progeny and great-grandchild of Cabernet Franc! It also shares one parent with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Not much is grown in Bordeaux these days, thanks to the ravages of phylloxera in the late 19th century, but there remain pockets of it on both the left and right banks. Carmenère’s adoptive homeland of Chile seems better suited to it: the comparatively warmer and drier conditions create a long, even growing season perfect for this late-ripening variety (harvest can be four to five weeks later than for Merlot.)
Extra hang time is important for Carmenère, which can be dominated by unpleasantly herbal and vegetal notes at less than full maturity. A sure sign of its genetic link to Cabernet Franc, which has similar tendencies. A wine made from ripe fruit will exhibit red and black fruit character, soft tannins, moderate acidity, and perhaps just a hint of capsicum on the nose.
As I tasted both wines, I noticed that there were discernible notes of green pepper among the ripe blackberry and black plum aromas: Stronger than what I would pick up in a new-world Cab Franc with a similar fruit profile, but more of what I might find in a cooler-climate Cab Franc from the Loire Valley. However, those wines tend toward a tart red fruit profile rather than ripe black fruit.
This could (perhaps) make it easier to identify a trio of wines from Chile, as might be presented on the D3 blind tasting exam. One of the flights will include three wines from a common region – you don’t know which – and, based on your evaluation of each one, you must make an educated guess as to what it is. Then, based on the evidence you’ve gathered, you explain why they come from a specific place.
I can easily imagine a trio from Chile: a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a Carmenère. The insights I’ve gleaned from tasting the two Concha y Toro Carmenères will be very helpful in that situation.
So I’ve already learned something useful for future blind-tasting exams!
About Concha y Toro
Founded in 1883, Concha y Toro has been making wine in Chile as long as Bordeaux varieties have thrived there. In fact, one of the oldest Carmenère vineyards, located in the town of Peumo, belongs to them. It sits in the Cachapoal Valley, where the coastal mountains and the Cachapoal River create a unique growing environment that ensures adequate heat and sunlight for full ripening of the fruit, while evening temperatures remain cool enough to retain acidity levels. It’s the perfect place for a late-ripening grape like Carmenère.
Winemaker Marcio Ramírez focuses on working with individual plots of vines, creating a range of varietal Carmenère wines each vintage. This allows for expanded blending options that make the most of each year’s unique conditions, as well as the opportunity to make smaller-quantity, single-vineyard wines.
And Now, the Wines
2019 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Reserva Carmenère (13.8% abv; $12 SRP)
Grapes are sourced from vineyards within the D.O. Valle Central, all of which lie atop well-drained, alluvial soils. It’s a blend (88% Carmenère; 12% Cabernet Sauvignon) that was aged for 10 months, partially in French oak (25% new.)
At a glance, the wine is deep purple; a swirl of the glass gives up aromas of ripe black fruit – plum, berry, cherry – and sweet hints of vanilla and cocoa. Woven between are notes of bell pepper that remind you of the primary grape’s parentage. On the palate, the wine is smooth and velvety, with the fruit front-and-center; acidity and tannins are moderate, and the finish leaves you with a nice potpourri of fruit and spice.
2018 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Carmenère (13.8% abv; $17 SRP)
A blend of Carmenère (86.6%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (13.4%) sourced from the Peumo Vineyard in Cachapoal Valley, this wine aged for 10 months in 5,000 litre oak barrels: 80% French; 20% American. What’s unusual about the vines is that they pre-date phylloxera and are on original rootstock. Soils are deep, with a layer of clay, which retains water the vine can access during times of drought and hydric stress. All of this enables the vine to stay viable during a long growing season, allowing the grapes to achieve phenolic maturity.
In the glass, this wine is deep purple. It offers aromas of ripe black fruit (berry, currant, plum), fresh ground black pepper, and vanilla cream. There notes of cedar and graphite, as well as the telltale hint of capsicum. As it rested in the glass, the wine opened to reveal spicy notes of licorice and clove. On the palate it was smooth and full-bodied, with moderate tannin and acidity. Flavors reflected the nose, and became more complex with time in the glass.
We kept it simple with the pairings, choosing grilled strip steaks one night, bone-in pork chops the next. On both occasions we served our favorite fall side dish: sheet pan Brussels sprouts with red onion, bacon, and sliced salami. It’s easy to make if you start with sliced sprouts, add the other ingredients, toss everything with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pop into the oven for about 20 minutes and, voilà!
Carmenère Day is November 24th
As luck would have it, Tuesday is Carmenère Day. What better time to celebrate a grape that traveled from one continent to another, found its place in the sun, and continues to provide wine lovers with a delicious, affordable option to jazz up a weeknight dinner?
(And here’s to my getting a flight of wines from Chile on the D3 exam!)
Wine Grapes: a Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz; Harper Collins, 2012.