The first versions of Chilean Carmenere I tasted years ago were often characterized by generous fruit flavors, dense color, chewy texture and distinctive flavors of jalapeño or green bell pepper. Those flavors of jalapeño and bell pepper were pleasing in moderation, but I found them overwhelming in many versions of the variety. Recently I was re-introduced to Chilean Carmenere from TerraNoble and what I tasted was a fresh, modern version of Carmenere.
During an online discussion and wine tasting led by Tomás Uribe Martínez, TerraNoble Regional Director USA & Europe, with Marcelo García, TerraNoble winemaker, we talked terroir and growing Carmenere in Maule Valley and Colchagua Valley as we tasted Carmenere from both regions. For good measure we tasted a delightful Carignan grown in Maule Valley. All wines were provided as tasting samples.
A Brief Look at Carmenere in Chile
Carmenere was brought to Chile in the early 1800s from Bordeaux along with Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot as part of a modern wave of viticulture undertaken by wealthy businessmen. These efforts built on the original colonial influence of the Spanish. Early plantings were often a mixture of varieties planted without an understanding of where they might thrive. By the late 1800s phylloxera was killing the vineyards in France that were the source of these cuttings.
In spite of characteristics different from Merlot’s expression in Bordeaux, Carmenere in Chile was misidentified as Merlot. The common thinking was that it was a variation of Merlot. It wasn’t until 1994 that French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot correctly identified some Merlot plantings as Carmenere. Carmenere in Chile has preserved the variety’s pre-phylloxera genetic heritage and helped save the variety from extinction.
TerreNoble in Chile
TerreNoble’s history in Chile begins in Maule Valley in 1993 with the planting of La Higuera vineyard, just as Carmenere was about to be correctly identified. 1998 brought the first release of Carmenere from the Maule Valley vineyard, followed in 2000 by the planting of an additional vineyard in Colchagua Valley. 2006 saw further expansion in Chile and into the international market. TerreNoble vineyards now include additional acreage in Colchagua Valley and a cool location in Casablanca Valley.
By 2000 TerreNoble’s winemaking team had enough experience growing and making Carmenere to introduce the CA Project (Carmenere Project.) CA1: Carmenere with an Andes influence and CA2: Carmenere with a Coastal influence. Both vineyard sites are in the Colchagua Valley.
Learning to Grow and Make Carmenere
Carmenere in Chile has changed greatly in the past 35 years. Early efforts, by Tomas and Marcelo’s account, were on the green side – referring to those green bell pepper flavors in the wine. Picking time was moved later to combat the problem, but overripe, opulent wines were often the result. As more new oak became fashionable around the world, Chilean winemakers used more new oak as well, not always with the best result. And tannins could be harsh.
But now, according to Marcelo and Tomas, we are in the golden age of Carmenere in Chile because so much has been learned about the variety. Terroir is better understood: Carmenere planted in granitic soils yield softer tannins, while vines planted in clay soils produce bigger, rounder tannins. Tomas named Maule, Colchagua and Cachapoal Valleys as prime locations for the variety.
Work to make balanced Carmenere begins in the vineyard. Control of vigor and yield are important to manage tannins. And it is important to understand that the balance of Carmenere vines changes with age: tannins become smoother with the age of the vine and the wines get fresher. With balanced vines, the right picking time results in wines with bright fruit flavors and plenty of acidity making acid adjustments in the wine cellar unnecessary.
Picking time is changing along with climate change in Chile – moving several weeks earlier in a matter of a few years. Canopy management has had to change too. Once canopies were thinned more heavily to promote ripening, and reduce pyrazines, now canopies are left fuller and sun protection is sometimes necessary to shield the grapes. But, overall, with proper management in the vineyard, Marcelo believes the warmer climate helps Carmenere better express itself. Climate change has also brought more variation from one vintage to the next requiring more attention to detail in the vineyard.
Marcelo emphasized the importance of walking the vineyard often and tasting the grapes in the vineyard to inform his picking decisions. What he tastes in the vineyard influences how he makes the wine as well.
Once in the wine cellar, Marcelo handles Carmenere gently with minimal movement. What he tastes in the vineyard will guide his choice of fermentation and aging vessels. His goal is to maximize fruit and vineyard expression.
A Taste of TerraNoble
2017 TerraNoble Gran Reserva Carmenere, Valle Del Maule — dense ruby in the glass with generous aromas of red and dark fruit with notes of roasted red pepper. Red fruit flavors lead with raspberries and blackberries, dusty earth and background flavors of roasted red pepper all supported by bright acidity. Tannins are drying in a medium body with a long finish. 14% abv. Average price $19
Fruit flavors are nicely balanced with just a bit of herbaceous flavor. Tomas called them quiet green notes, which is accurate to my taste. The most body and tannins of the group.
This is TerraNoble’s flagship wine. The Maule Valley vineyard was planted in 1994. Grapes were hand harvested April 10-12. The wine was aged for 12 months in un-toasted foudre (25%) and in first to third-use French oak barrels.
The CA Project demonstrates the unique character of Carmenere grown in two vineyard sites, planted within a year of each other, in the Colchagua Valley.
CA1 Andes: located at the foot of the Andes Mountains 62 miles inland from the coast. This is a warmer site, planted in 2005, with greater diurnal shift in temperatures and lies 1230 feet above sea level. Soils are heavier with clay and organic material.
CA2 Costa: located in Lolol 25 miles from the ocean among the coastal mountains. This is a cool site often covered in morning clouds, planted in 2004, with less diurnal change in temperatures. The site lies at 328 feet above sea level. Soils are thin, granitic and poor in organic material.
Both wines were vinified using similar maceration time, fermentation time and oak aging (20% un-oaked foudre, 80% new and 2nd use 300L French oak barrels for 14 months.)
2016 TerraNoble CA1 Andes Carmenere, Valle de Colchagua — dark ruby in the glass with aromas of red and dark berries along with dried herbs. Bright blackberry, and blueberry flavors combine with dusty earth, minerals and dried dill. Tannins are gauzy in a medium body and the wine finishes with fruit and juicy acidity. 14% abv.
2017 TerraNoble CA1 Andes Carmenere, Valle de Colchagua — dark ruby in the glass with dark berry fruit and subtle herbaceous notes. Blackberry, raspberry and blueberry fruit flavors combine with dusty earth and nice acidity. Tannins are gauzy and the body medium. 14% abv.
2017 TerraNoble CA2 Costa Carmenere, Valle de Colchagua — dense ruby in the glass with aromas of red fruit, cedar and dried herbs. Red berry fruit, blackberries, dusty earth and gravelly minerality are supported by lively acidity and gauzy tannins in a medium body. 14.3% abv.
2018 TerraNoble Gran Reserva Carignan, Valle del Maule — light ruby in the glass with aromas of tart red fruit. Flavors follow with raspberries, red cherries, pomegranate and blackberries. Fruit flavors are lively with bright acidity and an earthy component, cedar and drying tannins in a medium body. 13.5% abv.
This charming Carignan is a delicious taste of Chile’s history. Winemaking included 5% whole cluster fermentation and the use of concrete egg and un-toasted foudre in equal proportions for 10 to 12 months.
The vineyard was planted in 1958 and is dry farmed. Marcelo told us many such small, old Carignan vineyards remain and are farmed by individual farmers making rustic wine for themselves.
If you’ve not yet tasted Carmenere from Chile, now is an excellent time to do so. TerraNoble wines are available in the US and attractively priced. If your experience with Carmenere is years old, consider tasting Chile’s modern expression of the variety. I found these wines very different from the first Carmenere I tasted years ago and they are delicious.
Thanks to Marcelo and Tomás for your personal insights and for the interesting discussion. Thanks also to FeastPR for organizing the tasting.