Carménère Has Found Its Home And Individual Expression in Chile

Joaquín Hidalgo estimates he has tasted about 1000 bottles of Carménère over the past five years. He told an assembled group of wine writers that he developed a love of the variety before he understood the grape or the wine. He went on to share some of what he has learned about Carménère with our group. Joaquín has a degree in winemaking and a degree in journalism. He makes his home in Buenos Aires, where he writes about food and wine, and is the South American editor at Vinous.com. The wines below were provided as tasting samples to accompany the discussion.

Carménère By the Numbers

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is the most-planted red grape variety in Chile at 39%. Carménère comes next at 11% along with Merlot and Pais. About 25,000 acres of Carménère are planted in Chile.
  • About 55% of Carménère is planted in the Colchagua Valley and Cachapoal Valley, which together comprise the Rapel Valley, south of Santiago. About 45% is planted in Maule Valley, yet further south.
  • Soils are variable in these regions, but they share a warm, Mediterranean climate, which allows Carménère to fully ripen. As a result, Carménère can be made in a range of styles.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

  • Prior to 1994 Merlot plantings in Chile were thought to represent two expressions of Merlot — an early-ripening Merlot and a late-ripening Merlot.
  • In 1994 French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot correctly identified the late-ripening Merlot as Carménère. 
  • It was subsequently discovered that as much as 1/3 of presumed Merlot plantings were actually Carménère.
  • Following Carménère’s identification, enthusiasm for Carménère in Chile grew, and plantings peaked at 40,000 acres in 2014. 
  • Carménère acreage in Bordeaux, its original home, dwindled to about 25 acres by the time its true identity in Chile was established. Because Carménère struggled to ripen completely in Bordeaux, it was not widely replanted after phylloxera. Carménère acreage in Bordeaux is presently about 197 acres.

Let’s Taste

By 2017, according to Joaquín, the big, ripe style of Carménère most common in Chile began to shift to a less-ripe style that is more terroir driven. That translates to a style of wine that can be more elegant, fresher and reflects the leafy, roasted jalapeño or bell pepper flavors that are in Carménère’s genes — it’s closest relatives are Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

2020 was a very warm vintage in Chile, much like 2023. On the other hand, 2021 was colder than “normal”.

Photo of bottle label 2020 InVina Luma Chequén Gran Reserva Carménère, Valle de Maule, Chile
2020 InVina Luma Chequén Gran Reserva Carménère, Valle de Maule, Chile

2020 InVina Luma Chequén Gran Reserva Carménère, Valle de Maule, Chilemedium ruby with generous aromas of roasted green bell pepper, ash and red fruit. Flavors include dark and red berries with roasted green bell pepper and dusty earth supported by juicy acidity. Tannins are smooth and drying. 13.9% abv. SRP $17

A blend of Carménère from two sites in the Maule Valley, one warmer, inland site and one cool, coastal site.

Photo of bottle 2020 TerraNoble CA2, Carmenere Costa, Valle de Colchagua, Chile
2020 TerraNoble CA2, Carmenere Costa, Valle de Colchagua, Chile

2020 TerraNoble CA2, Carmenere Costa, Valle de Colchagua, Chile — dark ruby with aromas of blackberries and blueberries and hints of roasted jalapeños. Flavors include dark and tart fruit with background flavors of roasted jalapeño supported by ample acidity. Tannins are smooth and drying. 14.5% abv. SRP $36

CA2 is sourced from vineyards in a cooler, more coastal location. Also from TerraNoble is CA1 – sourced from Colchagua Andes near the mountains. 

Photo of bottle 2020 Montes Wings Carmenère, Apalta, Valle De Colchagua, Chile
2020 Montes Wings Carmenère, Apalta, Valle De Colchagua, Chile

2020 Montes Wings Carmenère, Apalta, Valle De Colchagua, Chiledense ruby with generous aromas of ripe berries, cardamom and hints of roasted jalapeño. Flavors include tart red fruit and spice supported by juicy acidity. Tannins are substantial and grippy and hints of roasted bell pepper linger on the finish. 14.5% abv. SRP $55

The vineyard is situated in granite soils adjacent to forested mountains of the Apalta Range, which according to Joaquín impart “garrique-like” flavors. 15% Cabernet Franc is added.

Photo of bottle 2020 Primus Carménère, Apalta, Colchagua, Chile
2020 Primus Carménère, Apalta, Colchagua, Chile

2020 Primus Carménère, Apalta, Colchagua, Chiledense ruby with aromas of dark cherries, ash and dried mint. Flavors include dark fruits, asphalt and roasted jalapeño supported by fresh acidity. Tannins are grippy and gauzy. 14.5% abv. SRP $21

This vineyard is also situated at the foot of the Apalta Range, but in an adjacent valley only 10km from the Montes vineyard. The wine is certified organic.

Photo of bottle 2021 Morandé Vitus Única Carmenère, Valle de Maipo, Chile
2021 Morandé Vitus Única Carmenère, Valle de Maipo, Chile

2021 Morandé Vitus Única Carmenère, Valle de Maipo, Chilemedium ruby with aromas of red cherries, black cherries and hints of dried tomato leaf. Flavors include ripe boysenberries, blueberries and plums with hints of roasted jalapeño in the background all supported by fresh acidity. Tannins are drying. 13.5% abv. SRP $20

The soils are gravelly in this vineyard close the the Maipo River and very close to the Andes Mountains.

2020 Viña San Esteban In Situ Carmenere Reserva, Valle de Aconcagua photo of bottle
2021 Viña San Esteban In Situ Carmenere Reserva, Valle de Aconcagua

2021 Viña San Esteban In Situ Carmenere Reserva, Valle de Aconcaguamedium ruby with aromas  red and dark cherries and oat hay. Flavors include juicy red cherries, red raspberries and blackberries along with oat hay and dried alfalfa supported by fresh acidity. Tannins are fine and drying. 13% abv. SRP $13

This vineyard location within the Andes, and near Los Andes city,  experiences warm days, but very cold nights. 5% Cabernet Sauvignon is added. 

Takeaways

  • Carménère is a grape variety that, by its genetic makeup, expresses a “green” component in its aromas and flavors. It is not a flaw in winemaking, it is part of Carménère’s genetic identity. You may like it or you may not. 
  • Vineyard sites and picking decisions also have an impact on how much bell pepper or jalapeño is expressed in the wine. Carménère is a late-ripening variety and more sun exposure can decrease those green flavors.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon may have overtaken Carménère in terms of acreage under vine, and prestige in Chile, but there is no other wine region in the world with more acreage under vine or as close an association with Carménère. 
  • Is it Carménère, Carmenère or Carmenere? The spelling varies on the wine bottle labels by winery and I have used the spelling as it appears on the label for each wine.
  • Overall, Chilean Carménère is pretty affordable. This collection of Carménère, curated by Joaquín for its range of flavors and styles, includes wines with more to very little or no green aroma and flavor component, so these wines are a good place to begin your exploration of Chilean Carménère.
  • Decant these wines or give them time in the glass to unwind. You will find the flavors are easier to tease out and appreciate after the wine breaths a bit.

Thanks to Joaquín Hidalgo for his time and expertise and to Creative Palate Communications for organizing our tasting and providing detailed background information.

Cheers!

2 Comments

  1. Having spent time in Chile-Carmenere is our favorite wine! Thank for sharing this. Hope to get back there soon.

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