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

The most significant carmenère grown in Chile, both in terms of vineyard quality and the marketing force behind it, is Concha y Toro's Carmín de Peumo. It took several years for Chile's largest winery to get behind the variety, its first major foray coming with the introduction of the Terrunyo brand in 2000. Ignacio Recabarren, Chile's legendary enologist, styled three wines from the 1998 vintage, including a carmenère from block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard. The site has a similar exposition to Apalta, one river valley to the north. It's a south-facing alluvial wash from the Cachapoal River rather than a colluvial wash from the hills. Peumo benefits from the moderating influence of Lake Rapel, just to the west.
   Recabarren says the 1999 vintage of Terrunyo Carmenère was a breakthrough wine for him. It was the first year he had control over the vineyard for the entire season, allowing him to make the wine from start to finish. He blended the fruit from block 27 with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon from Pirque Viejo, a vineyard on the south bank of the Maipo River, close to the Andes. When I tasted it with Recabarren in March of 2003, the wine was a gorgeous, sexy thing, luscious and supple. Those were not words I typically used to describe Chilean cabernet.
   Back in 1997, Tara Q. Thomas helped me to research a feature story on carmenère. She found a description of carmenère from Armound d'Armihacq, a 19th century proprietor and magistrate of the Médoc: "Its flavor is excellent. The taste is even better than the two cabernets; the wine it produces reflects these qualities. It is mellow, yet full and rich in body. It mixes well with [the] cabernets, to which it adds a rounder flavor. It lasts about as long, and with age, improves toward perfection."
   Recabarren says the quote got him thinking about carmenère differently, at a time when the flagship of the company was the Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto. He regularly traveled to France, in the company of Toby Morrhall, the buyer at The Wine Society in the UK. On one visit, they met a Frenchman who opened some old Bordeaux wines from Palmer and Talbot, a 1913 and a 1920, plus a bottle of 1982. While Recabarren says it is not likely these old bottles contained carmenère, they did help him imagine a style of Bordeaux different than the one represented by the 1982. "In that moment, I realized that it wasn't a bad idea to start to make more than a straightforward carmenère, to try to rebuild the old style of château wines."
   Concha y Toro built up a stock of older vintages of Carmín and Terrunyo Carmenère, and Recabarren has been tasting through them with his winemaking colleague Marcelo Papa. "We have arrived at the conclusion that the carmenère ages as well as the cabernet, and in certain years, better. But you need to have a good terroir, and make the wine with a good cabernet. I use Pirque Viejo; it gives some graphite and mineral character that links the varieties together well, but more than that, it is very fat, to fill but not to cover the character of the carmenère." As for the cabernet franc, Recabarren likes the fruit he gets from Tocornal, the Puente Alto vineyard neighboring Almaviva. The cabernet sauvignon here he finds too firm for the blend, but the franc "has a little floral character and with good ripening, not too much of an herbal note. In the mouth, it's complex, and also contributes fat." The majority, however, more than 85 percent, remains Peumo carmenère.
   Recabarren worked on the project for two years, keeping his Carmín lot separate until the moment it would have to be blended back into an established wine such as Terrunyo. He tasted it with James Mariani of Banfi Vintners, Concha y Toro's US importer, and with Eduardo Guilisasti, the CEO of the company. "I put my life in that wine," Recabarren recalls, "and I remember a lunch in Santiago in 2005, when Eduardo said, 'Ignacio, let's go with your product,' just when I was close to blending it away." Now Carmín stands at the head of a growing pack of carmenères, a voluptuous beauty that sets a different style for Chilean red wine.
   In fact, that style is not so different from Clos Apalta's, where the percentage of carmenère is lower, but still defines the blend. These two wines, from parallel valleys in Rapel, may provide the clearest view to the variety's future in Chile. They're both on a blended path, each following a different curve.

—Josh Greene
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