- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

This is the story of the grape that got away. Back in the 19th century, a red variety named carmenere was planted widely in Bordeaux, where it was used in some of the world’s most renowned wines. Then it virtually vanished.

It has reappeared recently, though half a world away. Carmenere has found a new home in Chile, where it is making delicious, distinctive wines.

In Bordeaux about 150 years ago, carmenere played a leading role in many of the best estates’ red blends. Though it ripened late in the season and yielded fewer berries per vine than other grape varieties, it was valued for producing deep, dark, full-flavored wines. Back then, much as today, Bordeaux reds were considered among the world’s best. Not surprisingly, when growers elsewhere wanted to grow top-quality fruit and make first-class wines, they imported vines from Bordeaux.

Nursery stock and cuttings from Bordeaux were shipped all over the world in the 19th century. Carmenere presumably was planted in Australia, North and South America, Italy, Spain, South Africa and many other places.

Then came what wine historians sometimes call the “sorrow.” Phylloxera, a tiny aphid that feeds on the roots of vines, began destroying Europe’s vineyards. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja — no region was spared.

Phylloxera came to Europe from North America, so the solution to the sorrowful plague was to graft European vines onto resistant American rootstock. By the turn of the century, virtually all the vineyards in Europe had been or were in the process of being replanted.

Much the same thing happened about everywhere else that European vines had been exported. No matter that a vine was growing in California, for instance; it was susceptible so long as it was on its own roots. (Phylloxera came to California in the 1880s, with disastrous results.)

Back in Bordeaux, once the owners and managers of the famous chateaux realized what needed to be done, they organized massive replanting projects. In the process, they re-evaluated the grape varieties in their vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon had been increasing in popularity and acreage and served much the same function as carmenere, being dark and full-bodied but producing larger, more regular crops. A relatively new earlier-ripening variety, merlot, produced softer, lush wines.

Following phylloxera, Bordeaux’s vineyards were largely replanted to the varietal composition that is there today. Cabernet sauvignon dominated vineyards in the Medoc and other left-bank regions, while merlot prevailed on the right bank of the Gironde River. Cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot also were cultivated in varying degrees depending on the location of the particular estate. Carmenere was mostly exiled.

The same was true in other places. Ambitious vintners beyond Bordeaux still looked back there for guidance. If cabernet sauvignon and merlot were the new king and queen in France, then so be it elsewhere. In a few places (Northern Italy, for example) carmenere was planted post-phylloxera, but that only happened because vintners mistakenly believed they were planting something else (cabernet franc in Northern Italy).

The one exception was Chile because it alone of all the significant wine-producing countries had been spared phylloxera’s scourge. Protected on one side by the Andes mountains and on the other by the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s vineyards remain phylloxera free.

Before long, however, even Chilean vintners forgot about carmenere. After a generation or two had passed, they knew only that their forebears had imported vines from Bordeaux. Because they also knew that their contemporary compatriots in Bordeaux cultivated mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, they simply assumed they were doing the same thing. Come the last decades of the 20h century, when Chilean vintners began courting an international clientele, they bottled and sold exactly that — cabernet and merlot.

There was no problem with the cabernet; in fact, Chile produces some of the finest cabernet-based wines anywhere. The merlot, however, was odd. It presented a vegetal, somewhat herbaceous character and had more tannin than merlot grown anywhere else.

When Chilean vintners began traveling abroad and vintners from Europe and America began coming to Chile, the differences became obvious. So, come the late 1980s, people began talking about the distinctive taste of something they called “Chilean merlot.”

In 1994, DNA testing proved that most so-called Chilean merlot wasn’t merlot at all, but carmenere. The vines often were planted alongside true merlot. (The two plants look very similar.) Because one ripened significantly later than the other, those vineyards tended to yield wines that indeed tasted green and herbal, with plenty of astringent tannin.

Over the course of 13 harvests since the positive identification of carmenere, more and more growers have isolated those vines so they can be grown and harvested separately. As a result, the wines have lost their vegetal character and have become riper, richer and far more enjoyable. They also are identified legitimately on the labels as carmenere.

Some Chilean producers use carmenere as a component in Bordeaux-styled red blends. Others employ it as a stand-alone varietal. In both cases, it offers a distinctive flavor profile. Though not inherently herbaceous, it has a spicy edge along with dark fruit flavors and firm tannins. Good examples also tend to display earthy undertones, giving them impressive complexity. Most important, though similar to wines made elsewhere from other Bordeaux grape varieties, they taste subtly but significantly different.

The recent success of carmenere has led growers in Australia, California and even France to experiment with it. Perhaps in decades to come it will return to Bordeaux. For now, though, it is Chile’s own, a grape and wine that has returned to glory in a new home, at long last identified by winemakers and wine drinkers alike for what it truly is.

Here are 10 fine carmeneres to try. They are listed in ascending order by price, and all are recommended highly.

Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo, Rapel Valley, Carmenere 2005 ($9). An excellent introduction to carmenere and a fine value, this deep, spicy wine is fleshy and full but at the same time softly textured and easy to drink.

Cono Sur, Colchagua Valley, Carmenere 2005 ($10). Well focused and structured, with black berry and plum flavors in the forefront and underlying spicy, almost briary notes.

Emiliana, Colchagua Valley, Carmenere “Natura” 2005 ($12). Richly textured but at the same time spicy and zesty. From a bio-dynamic producer just entering the American market.

MontGras, Colchagua Valley, Carmenere Reserva 2005 ($12). Deep and dark but not at all tight or astringent, this fine value offers layered flavors and tastes as though it should cost twice as much. Bravo.

(Oops), Valle Central, Carmenere 2005 ($12). Well defined fruit aromas and flavors are supported by earthy, tobacco-scented ones.

Santa Rita, Rapel Valley, Carmenere Reserva 2005 ($13). From a consistently reliable winery, this carmenere has an appealing leathery, almost dusty undertone that adds intrigue to its otherwise ripe, fruit-filled character.

San Pedro, Maule Valley, Carmenere 2004 ($19). Spicy but also big and rich, this is a full-flavored wine that can be enjoyed now but also will benefit from cellaring.

Concha y Toro Terrunyo, Rapel Valley, Peumo Vineyard, Carmenere, 2004 ($35). One of Chile’s finest renditions, this is a deliciously complete and complex wine. It surely will become even more so with a few years more of maturation.

Montes “Purple Angel,” Colchagua Valley, 2003 ($60). Internationally styled, meaning rich, ripe and opulent, but at the same time displaying an earthy edge and true Chilean character.

Concha y Toro, Cachapoal Valley, Peumo Vineyard “Carmin de Peumo,” 2003 ($70). A world-class wine made in limited quantities and thus difficult to find, yet very much worth the search. It has the stuffing to age gracefully for a decade or more.

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