Carménère: a profile of the world-class Chilean wine

A closer look at the story of this legendary grape and its solidification as a top player in the global wine market.

One of the charms of wine is that each grape has its own story. Carménère, a crimson red wine, the majority of which is produced in Chile, has one of the most interesting of all tales to tell.

This is Chile spoke about the wine’s legacy with Marina Stamos, a wine connoisseur who also works as an export manager at Viñedos Errazuriz Ovalle wineries, located in Valle de Colchagua. She explained that Chile-grown Carménère’s ability to withstand the odds to survive and thrive has made it a hit at home and abroad.

The Carménère vine originated from the Bordeaux region of France but was virtually wiped out by an insect plague in the mid-19th century and was thought to be extinct for over 100 years.

“The phylloxera pest in France destroyed most of the Carménère vines and they were never replanted because it was already a scarce variety and hard to maintain,” Stamos told This is Chile. “People thought it had disappeared.”

In 1994, the grape was miraculously re-discovered in Chile when viticulture experts undertook tests to see why some Chilean Merlot varieties tasted so different to similar wines elsewhere. Sure enough, studies showed the grapes were not Merlot at all, but Carménère!

“Philippo Pszczolkowski, a professor at the Universidad Católica in Santiago, conducted a close ampelography study and ascertained the true identity of the vine. This was then confirmed by French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot,” Stamos told This is Chile.

The Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized it as a distinct variety following this discovery.

“It had somehow been preserved, having been brought over to Chile by European immigrants. So essentially you could say the variety was saved in Chile,” Stamos added.

Today Chile enjoys the largest production of Carménère in the world, with 8,827 hectares of the vine growing in the country in 2012. Stamos explained that the dry conditions in Chile’s Central Valley, during the critical months of growth and vintage, create the ideal home for Carménère to thrive.

“In the Central Valley, it rarely rains during the months of Carménère’s long growth period, normally from January until May. This gives the delicate vine greater protection since rain and humidity are what attract pests,” Stamos said. “The lack of rain also means dry soil, which is what favors this particular vine.”

Stamos, who studied Viticulture and Oenology at Geisenheim University in Germany, described  Carménère’s interesting taste as a delicate blend of sweet and spicy.

“It contains flavors of red fruits and chocolate, while paprika and black pepper undertones give it its spiciness. It also has fewer tannins which means it is softer than most red wines and goes down more easily,” Stamos shared. “It’s one of the best wines to drink alone, without the need to use it for accompanying a meal. It’s also best drank young,” she continued.

Carménère is popular within Chile, while also being considered a world-class wine abroad, giving it great scope for export.

Viñedos Errazuriz Ovalle’s largest export market is the US, representing 50% of their total sales, including those of their own Carménère brand. The company ships most of their Carménère to Belgium, Mexico, Brazil, the US, Singapore, China and Holland, in order of descending sales. Stamos manages the process of sharing the popular Chilean wines abroad .

“Our wine is exported mainly from Valparaíso and San Antonio and arrives in Europe at the Rotterdam port, which usually takes around three weeks. We either bottle our wines here in Chile or give that option to the wine importer,” she explained.

Chile’s wine industry has recently gained substantial recognition through the wine’s distinction in a number of international competitions. Recently, eight Chilean wines proudly made it to the “Gold List” of the 2013 Sommelier Wine Awards.

By Daphne Karnezis