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Ahead of the Curve: Fifteen Years of Carmenere in Chile

by Joshua Greene
November 24, 2014

Casa Lapostolle

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 The old style of mixed plantings had been replaced by clonal selections of the top-performing varieties and rootstocks.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 farsighted 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 Supér ieure Agro nomique 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.

Montes’s vineyard in Marchigüe Montes’s vineyard in Marchigüe
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 its. At the time, he introduced me to Puro Chile, 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.”

Alvaro Espinoza Alvaro Espinoza
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 singleblock 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.

Michel Rolland Michel Rolland
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.

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.

Jean-Michel Boursiquot Jean-Michel Boursiquot
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.

This wine and the subsequent 2001 caught his imagination; it was completely different from his experience with the variety in Maipo, where he described carmenère as “a weak man in body and spirit.” In Peumo, it was voluptuous. Tasting the wine with him back in 2003, it was riper than the 1999, and though lacking two years in development, no less delicious. I wrote “supple” four times in my notes.

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.”

Ignacio Recabarren Ignacio Recabarren
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.

photo of Ignacio Recabarren by Sara Matthews

This feature appears in the print edition of February 2010.
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