When I recently took the “Carmenere Challenge,” much to my surprise, I did OK, nailing five of the seven questions, including the most crucial – choosing the flavor profile of the wine as described in a textbook with which I am only somewhat familiar.
The description the challenge was looking for: A carmenere should show “black- and red-berry fruit, hints of spice and smoke, a touch of herbs, red pepper, rich texture.”
That’s carmenere at its best, all right.
I had an advantage: The test arrived not long after I’d returned from judging at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition, where I was on a panel assigned the carmenere class. Eight had been entered.
Now, carmenere’s typical juiciness, solid build and acute acidity make it a splendid wine to pair with all sorts of husky cuts of beef, but Texans are mostly smitten with cabernet sauvignon when beef is on the menu. The informal state motto could be “a cab and a slab.” Carmenere hasn’t yet caught on in Texas to the extent that it’s been distilled into such snappy shorthand.
For that matter, will carmenere ever catch on in the United States generally, including California? Frankly, it’s difficult to see where it will find a place at the California table, where it faces stiff competition from so many similarly structured and comparably fruity red wines, including cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot and syrah.
On the other hand, carmenere is the red wine most closely associated with Chile, and Chilean wines have developed a U.S. following largely for their consistency, integrity and value. Furthermore, Chile’s most prominent winery, Concha y Toro, is assertively promoting carmenere here. Its people sent me the “Carmenere Challenge.”
While carmenere isn’t a new grape – it’s been cultivated in Bordeaux since at least the 19th century and has been grown in Chile since perhaps the 1860s – its identification with that country dates back just a couple of decades. During most of its life there it was mistakenly identified as merlot, and only in 1994 did DNA analysis show it to be carmenere. In the meantime, carmenere virtually disappeared from Bordeaux, largely because French vintners didn’t replant it after the root-louse phylloxera essentially wiped it out in the late 19th century.
The French turned their back on carmenere not because they didn’t value what it brought to Bordeaux blends in color, aroma, structure and texture, but because they concluded it was too fickle for the region’s compact and cool growing season.
Chilean vintners, on the other hand, have concluded that their terroir is warm enough and the growing season long enough to coddle carmenere to the point that its full expression can be realized.
At the recent tastings in Houston and at home, my favorites also were balanced, with reliable acidity and alluring complexity, which commonly involved herbal notes along the lines of bell peppers, eucalyptus, menthol or mint. These now are at the top of my shopping list:
▪ Casa Silva 2013 Valle de Colchagua Cuvee Colchagua Carmenere ($15): Chilean vintners have found that carmenere is an unusually site-specific grape, performing best in particularly dry and warm areas. One of the better known of those is Valle de Colchagua south of Santiago. That’s where this light and youthful take originates. For an introduction to carmenere, there’s no better buy around.
▪ Criterion Collection 2013 Valle de Colchagua Reserva Carmenere ($16): Here, Valle de Colchagua yielded a carmenere of unusual youth and exuberance. Its sunny fruit is punctuated with herbal notes evocative of bell pepper, but only notes, not in any way overwhelming its suggestions of cherries, berries and plums. It’s a finely crafted interpretation, lithe and vibrant.
▪ Casa Silva 2013 Valle de Colchagua Los Lingues Vineyard Carmenere ($20): Roasted chicken with chipotle mole was on the menu, and this bright, lean and long carmenere had the spice, structure and complexity to hold up to it without flinching. The wine’s flavor ran more to the cherry/berry side of carmenere than the herbal, topped with an intriguingly peppery accent.
▪ Concha y Toro 2012 Terrunyo Cachapoal Valley Puemo Vineyard Block 27 Entre Cordilleras Carmenere ($40): The price suggests a carmenere of more weight, tannin and oak than usually found in carmenere, but the difference is only slight. Overall, the wine is lean, focused and spirited, with reserved tannins, uplifting acidity and a dusting of cocoa floating on a cherry sea. What you pay for is uncommon elegance in the breed.
▪ Francois Lurton 2011 Colchagua Valley Hacienda Araucano Alka Carmenere ($60): An unusually hefty carmenere, fully exposing both the fruit side of the varietal in its concentrated cherry/berry flavor and the herbal side in its stalkiness. The wine is warmed with 15 percent alcohol and underpinned with sturdy tannins.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.