Ahead of the Curve: Fifteen Years of Carmènere in Chile

Chilean style is quiet and elegant. It’s the cross between a serious Catholic culture and the romanticism of the Pacific.
   That style defines a lot of the best Chilean cabernet sauvignon—quiet, elegant, with some of the strictures of a Catholic upbringing. The Bordelais have come to Chile for that cabernet, a variety proven to grow reliably throughout the wine world, though rarely with the combination of finesse and power found in the Médoc. In Chile, you can find the finesse.
   And you can also find carmenère, a variety once well loved in Bordeaux. The French brought it to Chile in the 19th century, hired by wealthy families to develop vineyards in the suburbs of Santiago. And it survived there, an unregistered immigrant in a population that would have included malbec, cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a host of other varieties.
   Bypass a century, particularly the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, when Chile was effectively shut off from much of the free world by the government of Augusto Pinochet. When Chile reemerged with its first free elections in 1989, the modern Bordeaux vineyard had evolved, post-phylloxera, into a more tightly controlled population of vines, with cabernet sauvignon dominant in the Médoc and merlot in the Libourne. The old style of mixed plantings had been replaced by clonal selections of the top-performing varieties and rootstocks. Bordeaux was still a blended wine, but there were fewer players in the blend: Some of the vines that helped build Bordeaux's reputation—varieties that played a major role in the wines of the 1855 classification—had been lost.
   Growers in Bordeaux had long ago given up on carmenère. The vine had issues. It performed poorly on rootstock, was susceptible to coulure and millerandage and ripened late in the season, if at all. Merlot, an early-ripening variety, proved more suited to a region where fall rains could ravage a crop. Merlot was also the Chilean red wine of the moment in the US: From 1989 to 1994, when the Chilean wine industry was growing exponentially, growers and producers rushed to satisfy the demand for merlot.
   Then a young enologist, son of a local legend in the enology department of the Catholic University in Santiago, began to wonder about certain vines in an old vineyard. Alvaro Espinoza had come to work for Ricardo Claro in 1992; Claro, as one of Chile's most successful businessmen, leveraged the wealth he'd built in shipping and other areas to purchase 2,000 acres of vines that had belonged to his family in the 19th century. The vineyards comprised the original estate for his Santa Rita wines, and he also planned to use them to resurrect an older brand, Viña Carmen, for which he'd hired Espinoza.
   Like other far-sighted enologists at the time, Espinoza and his viticultural team were segmenting the vineyard into blocks to determine which varieties would grow best in each area. He'd been confused by a vine the team considered to be merlot; Espinoza imagined that it must be some kind of late-ripening clone, or possibly cabernet franc. Then Jean-Michel Boursiquot came to visit from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier.
   Although Boursiquot had studied carmenère only in the ampelographic collection in France, never in an actual vineyard, he identified Viña Carmen's unusual "merlot" vines as the nearly extinct Bordeaux variety. "I'd known that it had been confused with cabernet franc in northern Italy," he recalled recently. "I identified it visually, paying particular attention to the color of the young leaves, the form of the adult leaves, and observing the flowers at the moment of flowering. The stamens of this variety are very particular; they are not straight or rectilinear but slightly twisted." Boursiquot made the call in November, 1994, when the wine from that block was already in tank.
   The discovery would not have been significant had carmenère not become so widespread in Chile, had "Chilean merlot" not become such a powerful export, had Alvaro Espinoza not convinced the rather conservative, deeply Catholic, tactically savvy Ricardo Claro to allow him to bottle a blend of carmenère and cabernet sauvignon and introduce the lost variety to the public. "I had to talk to Mr. Claro," Espinoza recalls, "because we were doing something the rest of the companies were not doing. The Chilean trade was not happy to discover that we had carmenère. He told me we were on the right track; it was an opportunity, not a problem."

Espinoza's 1994 Carmen Grand Vidure–Cabernet Reserve was the first Chilean wine to identify itself as carmenère on the label (well, almost—Carmen used "grand vidure," a synonym for carmenère, to avoid confusion with the brand name). His 1995, from an exceptional vintage, caught the attention of any number of his fellow Chileans, as well as some international journalists, including this one. (cont’d. on page 2)

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