Ahead of the Curve: Fifteen Years of Carmenère in Chile (cont'd.)

   I had been traveling once or twice a year to Chile, chronicling the transformation of the wine industry as the country shed the political restrictions of the Pinochet era. I met Patricio Tapia, the wine writer for the Santiago daily, El Mercurio, who has since become a senior correspondent and critic for Wine & Spirits. At the time, he introduced me to Puro Chile, a bar friends had opened in his Santiago neighborhood to serve ceviche and local wine. Long before Almaviva and Casa Lapostolle built their chic bodegas for the moneyed set, Puro Chile was an outpost of the young, hip and wine-curious. This past fall, one of the original founders set up a wine, food and travel emporium called Puro Chile in New York. The site hosted a carmenère tasting to inaugurate the space, a signal of how the variety has come to represent Chilean style in wine.


While neighboring Argentina built its global wine brand with malbec, carmenère was no such silver bullet for Chile. Pomerol-based enologist Michel Rolland has been a major force in the promotion of Argentine malbec. His advocacy of carmenère has been somewhat more sub rosa. Rolland's exclusive consulting agreement in Chile with Casa Lapostolle produced one of Chile's most revered red wines, Clos Apalta, a blend of old-vine fruit that the firm defined as predominantly carmenère and merlot. With recent releases, Casa Lapostolle began to quote specific figures for carmenère in the blend; the latest, from 2007, includes 61 percent carmenère. In 1996, when Rolland was getting the Lapostolle project underway, he commented that "the mix of carmenère and merlot in Chile is very old. I have been buying merlot from different vineyards and people tell us by phone, 'We have merlot.' We went to see and it is 90 percent carmenère. Carmenère is not bad, but it is not merlot."
   That may be a classic Dear John line in Pomerol: "You're not a bad guy, but..." In any case, it took until 2007 for Casa Lapostolle to release a wine labeled carmenère, and the wine is not bad.
   Meanwhile, using old-vine carmenère as a blending grape rather than a featured variety, Clos Apalta has produced some of the greatest red wines in Chile. A community of such blends has developed in Colchagua, including one from Santa Rita, the brand that shares Carmen's vineyards in Buin. Andrés Illabaca, a classmate of Espinoza and now an enologist at Santa Rita, developed an interest in carmenère in 1997, making it part of his Triple C, a cabernet franc-based blend that also includes cabernet sauvignon. For Illabaca, fully ripe cabernet franc "has a lot of flavor and power but is a bit short." So he blended in ten percent carmenère to improve the length of flavor. "At the same time, because of the fresh character of carmenère, the ripe fruit became stronger in the final blend. It was only during the second racking that I realized how well carmenère fit in the blend."
   Later, he based his Pehuén wine on carmenère from Apalta, where he found a vineyard with deeply rooted, dry-farmed vines. He says winter rains replenish the water in the soil, to be consumed by the vines during the growing season. As the soil dries out, the vines begin to shut down, and it is only the water that remains in the deeper clay that allows the vines to finish ripening. He finds it gives a wine with sweet, ripe tannins. That's a strong positive for carmenère, which often produces wines with underripe tannins that hold a lot of pyrazines, creating the green pepper character most producers would rather avoid.
   Aurelio Montes had worked successfully with carmenère as a consultant at De Martino (they found a stony sector of their Isla del Maipo that offered a hospitable rooting site for carmenère, and bottled it as a single-block wine). But Montes did not bring out an icon-level carmenère under his own label until he developed a vineyard in the far western reaches of Colchagua, 18 kilometers from the coast. He planted the variety on the poor soils of an east-facing hillside, a site he describes as containing a lot of mica, with maicillo, a granitic sand, five feet below. Strong afternoon winds provide a cooling influence, providing fresher fruit to balance the carmenère he grows in Apalta. He blends them together in his Purple Angel. In the best vintages, it combines the ample texture and suave tannins of Apalta carmenère with the refinement and potent structural acidity contributed by Marchigüe.
   Heading east, into the foothills of the Andes, Mario Geisse makes a small production "micro-terroir" wine out of carmenère at Casa Silva's vineyard, Los Lingues. If only to prove that there are varied sites where the vine can ripen, this is one of the top carmenères in Chile. It combines the tarriness of carmenère's tannin with spicy red fruit, sharing some of the elegance and coolness of Andean cabernets. (cont’d. on page 3)

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