Carménère: a uniquely Chilean wine

Marked by a singular history, this stock, originally from France, is today only produced in Chile, a country that provides unique conditions for its development. Ignored for years, today it is the spearhead for opening new markets for Chilean wine varieties.

Today there are more than 8,000 hectares planted and recognized as Carménère in the country
Today there are more than 8,000 hectares planted and recognized as Carménère in the country

The history of Carménère is special. Recognized as the most complex of grapes at the time of achieving its maturation, it suffered more than any stock from the effects of the phylloxera plague that between 1860 and 1870 affected wine grapes in Europe, and France in particular, from which the strain originates. The disaster was so huge that the French, tired of the complexities of its cultivation, decided to stop growing Carménère, after which it was thought that it had disappeared forever.

Ten years before, however, some rootstock of this grape had been sent to Chile. As a result of the crisis that Europe was undergoing at the time, a large number of enologists emigrated from Europe to this South American country, giving a vigorous boost to the emerging and already powerful Chilean winemaking industry.

Notwithstanding, and in spite of the mass presence in the country of highly qualified persons, Carménère was ignored. The reason? Nobody noticed its presence and it was planted together with Merlot and Cabernet strains, so that for many years it was sold as one of these varieties.

More than a century went by before the secret of this grape became unveiled. Up till then just a few samples had been kept for academic studies at the University of Bordeaux, the region in France where it had once been produced on a large scale. Specifically in 1991, French ampelographer Claude Vallat indicated that some of the Merlot that Chile was producing was not actually a Merlot, but he was unable to establish what stock it really belonged to.

“In 1992, we found in the wine guide that the Merlot that we blind-tasted had a greenish taste, a taste of peppers that is indicative of an immature wine and is an essential characteristic of Carménère. We looked for all possible explanations: that maybe it was the soil, maybe it was the climate…”, says Héctor Vergara, chair of the Chilean Sommeliers’ Association.

Two years later, Jean Michel Boursiquot, a pupil of Vallat’s, was finally able to determine that some of the varieties of Chilean Merlot were really Carménère stock, which had long since disappeared in Europe. Although the information gave rise to certain problems in the industry, these were rapidly overcome and the end result was the realization that this new discovery represented an enormous business potential for the Chilean industry in terms of the production of this strain in particular.

But it was not an easy process. “The change was gradual, because for a start all the Carménère strains were normally planted in the same place as the Merlot grapes”, says Vergara. “A complex process was involved, first separating the stock, then planting it and certifying that it really was Carménère”, the sommelier adds.

Current panorama
The uncertainty that this produced in the industry at the time rapidly translated into action. Today there are more than 8,000 hectares planted and recognized as Carménère in the country. “Chile is the country that has been identified with this variety, distinguishing it from others in the industry”, indicates sommelier Ricardo Grellet. “If its growth statistics remain as solid over the next decade, it could even surpass the 27,000 hectares that are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon”, he adds.

The concern with quantity has been duly accompanied by continual improvement of the quality of the Carménère wines. “At first, as we didn’t know how to work it well and weren’t informed as to which were the best places for developing the strain, our wines were a bit green”, indicates Vergara. “Now that taste has been disappearing, but it wouldn’t be wise to push it toward overripening because that would make it lose its essence, which is precisely its greenish taste”, adds the sommelier.

And it has been producing concrete results to this day. The icon Carménère produced by Concha y Toro, Carmín de Peuco 2003, obtained 97 points out of a maximum of 100 in the ranking drawn up by the prestigious specialty magazine The Wine Advocate, and in 2007 the Von Siebenthal winery also obtained 97 points with its Carménère Tatay. “The international press publishes all these excellent results and that also helps us”, stresses Vergara. “If we continue like this, Chile will have the best Carménères in the world”, adds Grellet.

Promising future
Vergara believes that the potential of Carménère is gigantic, because Chile is the only country that produces it. “The international markets are always on the lookout for novel products and Carménère is certainly that. Although Cabernet Sauvignon is considered Chile’s number one strain, it is no less true that more than forty countries produce it. Our Syrah is fantastic, but it is already associated with Australia, while Malbec is renowned as an Argentine product, but in terms of Carménère we are unique”, he indicates.

But this is not the only reason. The appearance of competitors of the Chilean Carménère will not be easy, at least in the short term. “In the European climate it is almost impossible for it to mature because it needs many hours of sunlight, which is an advantage for us”, explains the sommelier. “At first we produced wines that were quite green because we weren’t familiar with the vegetative cycle of the plant. That was counterproductive for us, especially in the United States, but I think we’re going to win over that market because the quality of the wines is much higher than it was ten years ago”, he stresses.

For these reasons he wagers in favor of Carménère as the spearhead for opening new markets for the Chilean industry. “If I sell wine, Carménère is always a novelty, and it serves as a spearhead. If I want to open a market I can present the Carménère and later display the rest of my portfolio of products. Chile is recognized among the international traders as the country for Carménère”, he states.

Lastly, in the view of the sommelier, although the earthquake of 27 February 2010 affected the industry to some extent, it does not represent any problem for the future of this product in the international markets. To give weight to his argument he cites the example of the World Sommelier Competition that took place only two months after the earthquake.

“Two months ago we had representatives of 53 countries here and we had them taste our wines. They were surprised by the quality of the Carménère, even though we showed them more than 50 Carménère export wines. We understand that when we have a campaign we need to display an ample variety because two or three samples are not much use. In general the industry is growing and this year’s harvest, in particular, is of excellent quality”, Vergara concludes.

This post is also available in Spanish