Carménère: The Vine That Masqueraded as Merlot in Chile

Concha y Toro Carmenere

After phylloxera wiped out Carménère in Bordeaux, it wasn’t replanted: too prone to disease and too late in ripening. With so few vines planted, commercial Carménère was considered extinct.

Until in 1994, Carménère was discovered in Chile masquerading as Merlot! In the early 1900s, Carménère had a mistaken identity and was marketed as a special clone of Merlot, and frequently blended together. People attributed the differences in character to the terroir off Chile, but French ampelographist Jean Boursiquot figured out the truth.

Visiting Chile for a conference in 1994, Boursiquot was shown a newly planted Merlot vineyard, except that “the four Bordeaux varieties that had been imported to Chile in the 1800s – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Merlot – have straight stamens below their flowers. The stamens he was looking at were twisted, and Boursiquot was surprised by his own conclusion: the vines had to be Carmenere, a Bordeaux red grape wiped out by phylloxera in 1867.”

On November 24, 26 years ago, Carmenere was unmasked and experienced a rebirth. Happy birthday, Carmenere!

Today many consider Carménère Chile’s signature grape with nearly 25,000 acres planted (2014) in wine growing regions both near the Andes and near the coast with the Peumo Valley an important source of high quality fruit:

Peumo is part of a longitudinal valley, that is, one where the Coastal Range is parallel to the Andes. Therefore, this vineyard is protected from the influence of the Andes and, because it is also a narrow valley, it receives the influence of the winds that originate in the Cachapoal River.

All this creates a microclimate in Peumo that prevents frosts from occurring in spring and hardly occurring in winter, setting an ideal place for Carmenere, as it is a very delicate variety when it comes to low temperatures,” says Concha y Toro’s Domingo Marchi, agricultural manager in the Rapel zone. 

Winemaker Marcio Ramírez now has almost 20 years experience in Puemo.

“The Carmenere vines in Peumo are like another family to me,” Ramírez explains. “I see them every day, I know them very well, and with such a long growing season for the variety, I have time each year to understand how we can arrive at a perfect harvest together.”

He and his team crafts five distinctively different Carmeneres:

  • Carmín de Peumo, one of the top Carmeneres in the world (sourced from Block 32)
  • Terrunyo Carmenere (99% Carmenere, sourced from Block 17)
  • Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere (blended with Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Carmenere (blended with Merlot)
  • Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserva (from Rapel Valley and Central Valley)

 

Concha y Toro Carmenere

Carménère Menu

  • Cheese board:
    goat cheese ball with pomegranate, duck pate, rosemary almonds, huntsman cheese, camembert, port salut
  • roasted butternut squash and brussels sprouts
  • scallop cheese potatoes
  • rack of lamb with garlic and rosemary
  • green salad with homegrown tomatoes

Read more about the history of this grape and our successful pairings in 2016, 2018, 2019. 

Carménère from Chile’s Concha y Toro 

  • 2019 Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserva
  • 2017 Serie Riberas Gran Reserve Carménère
  • 2017  Marques Casa de Concha Carménère
  • 2017 Terrunyo Carménère Block 17

 

Concha y Toro Carmenere Diablo

2019 Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserva
ABV 13.5%; SRP $12

  • D.O. Valle Central
  • 88% Carmenere, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 3.62 pH | 10 months partially with oak (25% new)

Back in the late 1880s, to fend off wine thieves, Chilean wine pioneer Don Melchor de Concha y Toro said his cellar was haunted. The Casillero del Diablo brand released its first wine in 1966; today the “Devil’s Cellar” is the #1 Chilean wine brand in the U.S. and the #2 premium imported Cabernet Sauvignon in dollar sales. In 2020 Wine Enthusiast named  Casillero del Diablo New World Winery of the Year.

Color:  Ruby with a purple, or plum rim.

Nose: Vegetal notes, for Sue, her favorite jalapeño jelly. Coming back to it, it is all fruit and wood. Very young.

Sue: “I just want to stick my nose in here and hang out for a while”

Palate: Bright fresh fruit, carob, the finish is very mocha, I liked this wine better on the palate then on the nose. Such a long coffee finish. We agreed that this vintage is delicious, chocolate covered cherries.

Pairing: For Sue the best pairing on our cheese plate with this wine was the goat cheese and pomegranate ball. It really loves the fresh fruit flavor of the pomegranate, and the goat cheese holds it all together. The camembert cheese also was lovely with the wine. It brings out lovely fruit in the wine and the wine cuts through the creaminess of the cheese. Super fantastic with the roasted squash and really good with the grilled rack of lamb smothered in garlic and rosemary.

If this Carménère is what’s in your budget, it is a great bang for the buck. No wonder the brand is doing so well!

Concha y Toro Carmenere Gran Reserva

2017 Serie Riberas Gran Reserve Carménère
ABV 13.9%; SRP $20
85% Carmenere, 15% Merlot

Color: Super dark and dense, almost inky, blood red rim

Nose: Subtle hints of jalapeño jello, deep dark chocolate covered cherries.

Palate: While the fruit is there, Sue found this wine to be very spicy, on the pepper spice side. Mint, menthol, eucalyptus, cherry fruit, lovely mocha notes.

Pairing: This wine worked the best with the pate as the black pepper quality cut through the richness. Both marry nicely.

Sue: “I would never think of putting goat cheese and pomegranate together with a red wine, but here it is and so wonderful.”

Concha y Toro Carmenere Casa Concha

2017  Marques Casa de Concha Carménère
ABV 14.5; SRP $22
88% Carmenere, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon

Color: Ruby with a blood red rim

Nose: Grilled jalapeño off the BBQ, smoky jalapeño, cherry fruit

Palate: Nice bright fruit, very light, The oak is there, big oak, vanilla, toast, not overbearing, but very present.

Pairing: Our huntsman cheese brought out a sweetness in both the wine and the cheese. The rosemary Marcona almonds were Very nice. Not fabulous with the  pate, but alright. Worked well with the lamb dinner.

Concha y Toro Carmenere

2017 Terrunyo Carménère Block 17
ABV 14.5; SRP $40
99% Carmenere

Planted in 1990; unfiltered. Last year we opened a bottle of the 2006 that I had purchased and cellared. While we wondered whether it would be any good, it was! Don’t be afraid to cellar this wine!

Color: Very dense, ruby, with a bright rose rim

Nose: Forest floor and earth. Sue got bell pepper, and eucptalyptus, minerals are present on the nose as well in this Carménère.

Palate: Very herbal in a deep sage and forest floor kind of way, described Gretel, but nice bright fruit as well

Pairing: Silky smooth tannins, all of the flavors of the nose are present, but none of them are overwhelming. Very balanced. All of the flavors have integrated into this wine and are married together becoming a very satisfying Carménère. Sue made a goat cheese and pomegranate ball for our cheese plate and we found it to be quite nice with the wine. Fabulous with rack of lamb, smoked ham, and a rib eye steak.

Happy Carmenere Day!

For more coverage of Concha y Toro carmenere, go here for 2016, here for 2018, and here for 2019. 

 

 

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