The Alec Baldwin of Forgotten Grapes

Carmenere, the Alec Baldwin of Forgotten Grapes

Carmenere: It used to be big. Really big. One of the six “noble” red grapes allowed in Bordeaux wines big. Just like how Alec Baldwin used to be an A-list movie star who headlined films like "The Hunt for Red October." Carmenere wasn’t quite that big; it didn’t command above-the-title status or its own 100% varietal wines just yet, but it did hobnob with other famous Bordeaux brethern grapes like Alec used to do with Stephen, Billy, and Daniel.

But then, something happened. Somehow, Carmenere fell out of favor, like after "The Marrying Man" or "The Edge" (the latter a surprisingly good movie). No one is sure why Carmenere suddenly lost all of its charms; local legend has it that after the Phylloxera plight of the 1870s, when nearly every grapevine in France was destroyed, wine growers couldn’t find any healthy Carmenere roots to replant with anywhere, and because the vines themselves were temperamental and hard enough to grow when alive (Carmenere vines often suffered from a condition called coulure, where buds flower too early in the growing season, resulting in a significant loss of berries), they just said why bother. Cab and Merlot were more prestigious and made them more money. Soon after, every single trace of Carmenere was gone from France and by the turn of the century, there wasn’t a single vine or grape of the stuff to be found anywhere.

Okay, not anywhere. Fortunately for the grape (and for us lovers of Forgotten Grapes), a few conniving winemakers from South America inadvertently kept the grape from becoming wholly extinct. Sometime in the mid-1800s, Carmenere rootstock was either imported or smuggled out of Bordeaux, depending on who you listen to, in bundles of more prized Cabernet and Merlot clippings. The roots found their way to the not-exactly-a-hotbed-of-wine nation of Chile where they were planted, and for over century and a half the grapes were cultivated under the assumption that they were just a variant of Merlot, even though this Chilean Merlot mash-up tasted like no other Merlot on the planet. Apparently wine experts just chalked up the taste differences to the inexperience of Chilean winemakers and the different terroir of the Andean backbone. Ha ha ha, silly Chileans. Think they can make wine better than us French/Americans/Australians/insert your own haughty winemaking culture here. It wasn’t until 1994 that French professor of Oenology Jean-Michel Boursiquot determined that some of the Merlot growing in Chile wasn’t Merlot at all but rather the long-thought-gone Carmenere. Four years later, the Chilean government officially recognized Carmenere as its own separate varietal and it’s been thriving ever since.

Today, much like how Alec went into network televsion (previously thought to be a graveyard for former A-list movie actors) and used “30 Rock” to his advantage to boost his flagging career, Carmenere has enjoyed quite a renaissance in Chile. Despite the fact that Cabernet is still the most widely-planted grape in that country, Chile has become synonymous with Carmenere, as it is the only country that grows the grape in any volume of note. Small patches of it have recently been planted in the U.S. (in California and near Walla Walla, Washington), Australia, and New Zealand, but all those parcels combined add up to only a mere fraction of the Carmenere grown in Chile. Hell, there’s more than 4000 hectares of the stuff grown in Chile’s Central Valley alone. Carmenere is still considered to be exclusively Chile’s grape, but Chile is still considered to be a second- or even third-tier wine-producing country. You do the math.

Regardless, Carmenere is a wonderful grape to drink, with similarities to Merlot but a depth of color and character and ruggedness that differentiates it from its more noble cousin (though it’s actually more closely related to Cabernet Sauvignon). And here is where the grape and thespian comparisons diverge, because unlike Alec Baldwin, Carmenere does not yet have the name recognition or loyal following that those two have. Trust me, there’s not a whole lot of people in this world outside of Chile opening up a bottle of Carmenere every Monday at 9 p.m. or enjoying a glass every Thursday at 9:30. But that’s why Forgotten Grapes is here. Think of us as the wise, kind-hearted network exec willing to take a chance on this once well-known but now downtrodden grape just itching for a comeback. You really ought to take notice and not get left behind. Set your Drinking DVR now and tune in for all the juicy details of this truly remarkable comeback story.


How do I pronounce Carmenere



Carmenere Looks Like:

Carmenere wines can be as dark as night in the bottle and glass. This makes sense since Carmenere was used in Bordeaux to give Cab and Merlot wines more color and depth, among other things. Don’t be put off by the color, though. You’re not going to be drinking an inky black wine. No, Carmenere is still a red at heart, just so dark and intensely red that it sucks in all the light around it and looks black. The tell-tale sign that the wine is still red, though, is the violet ring around the edge of the glass when you tilt the wine toward light. That’s about as close to red as your Carmenere is going to get, unless you spill it. though do note that some Carmeneres can be made in a lighter style, which will have more of a deep garnet color than the dark inky black or purple.


Carmenere Smells Like:

Fruit. Big fruit. Big red fruit. Red currants. Big hairy red (not blue) raspberries. Definitely some Creme de Cassis in there as well. You might also get some smoke from the nose, which would be perfectly normal, as well as the scents of bittersweet chocolate and maybe even the slightest whiff of pastry dough. That’s right, Carmenere is a big chocolate-covered raspberry and red currant danish just waiting to be bitten into. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Just know that any Carmenere nose should be big. In some instances, Carmeneres even mock the aroma of a Syrah, save for the rugged, dirty barnyard smell that is a hallmark of Syrahs. But Carmeneres are just as big fruit-wise and you’ll definitely smell all that big red fruit as soon as you pull the cork.


Carmenere Tastes Like:

Alright, now it’s time to take things down an octave or two. Suddenly those rich red fruits you smelled don’t seem so red anymore. The sun has set, and you’re not in Raspberryland anymore. Now you understand why Carmenere has such a deep, dark color. The fruit is still there but as John Cafferty and Beaver Brown Band once sang, it’s on the dark side, baby. Black currants, blackberries, pomegranate. The dark fruits hit you up front and then evolve into even darker flavors as the wine sits in your mouth: more semi-sweet chocolate (maybe even bordering on one of those 71% cacao bars you find in those chic-chic chocolate boutiques that have popped up in malls recently), tobacco, licorice root. The richness of Carmenere won’t be denied, although there will be one notable thing missing from your mouthful – tannins. Tannins are virtually nonexistent in a Carmenere. As you swallow, you may get no aftertaste, or you may get a strong coffee flavor that will stay with you. That’s the beauty of Carmenere: like a box of espresso-and-tobacco laced chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, but you’re going to want to come back for more and more again and again.


Key Regions:

●        Chile (duh)

●        France's Bordeaux region

●        Small parcels in California, near Walla Walla, Washington, in Australia, and in New Zealand


Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

It has only been recently that Chile has seen a major boom in its wine production and exportation, events not coincidentally linked with the “discovery” and embrace of Carmenere and with Pais finally being displaced by Cabernet Sauvignon as the most planted grape in the country.  Currently twenty different varietals are grown in Chile,
and from 1995 to 2005, the number of wineries in Chile skyrocketed from 12 to 70. Chile is currently the fourth-largest exporter of wine to the United States, trailing France and Italy and only recently being surpassed by Australia. 


Perfect Pairing:

Camenere can be kind of a tweener wine: too big for chicken but not big enough for beef or lamb. It may have the acid but it just doesn’t have the tannic backbone to stand up to heavy meats. One terrific pairing with Carmenere would be heavy tapas, like oily salty grilled boquerones [anchovies]; patatas bravas with a really spicy, tomato-y sauce; spicy veal Merguez sausages made with lots of paprika; and paella. Carmenere is going to be dynamite with paella. All of those different flavors – the spicy, the oily, the meaty, the salty, the tomato-y, the mellowness of the rice, saffron and seafood, it’s all going to present a really nice front for the darker berry flavors of Carmenere to cut through. 

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