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Feature Story

Carmenère Comes Out
A fresh identity for Chile’s signature red

by Patricio Tapia
June 20, 2018

When, in 1993, Chilean winegrowers discovered that their merlot vines were, in fact, carmenère, many tried to ignore the news. At the time, there was strong demand for merlot around the world; carmenère was virtually unknown, a variety that had disappeared from Bordeaux after phylloxera. A significant player in the blends that ruled the 1855 Classification in the Médoc, carmenère never took to the superripe styles that became popular in Chile in the 20th century. Only recently, as winegrowers have pulled back on ripeness and oak treatments, has the true identity of Chilean carmenère begun to emerge.

It may be hard to find, but there is, in fact, a monument. In the middle of the Maipo Valley estate that belongs to Santa Rita and Carmen, a concrete monolith stands at the foot of the Andes mountains. A golden plaque explains that it was here, in 1994, that French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered what had been planted and vinified in Chile as merlot was, in fact, carmenère—an immigrant from Bordeaux brought over in the 19th century.

During the 1990s, Chile was building its presence in the international market based on reliable, value-priced reds. At the time, merlot was on fire in the US, and there was such a shortage in California’s vineyards that wineries in the States were buying merlot from South American wineries to bottle under their own labels. Suddenly, Chile had no “merlot merlot” to sell, just so-called “Chilean merlot.” Merlot had become a brand name, and Chileans had just lost the license to sell it.

Around this time, Santa Rita hired Alvaro Espinoza to produce wines under a new label, Carmen, and had been farming carmenère vines in Maipo for what they bottled as merlot. Espinoza and his team believed the discovery offered them something original, an opportunity distinctive to Chile. As he recalls, “We decided, that same year, that we were going to put the variety on the label.” Ironically, they ran into trouble with their marketing department, because the name of the winery was so similar to the name of the grape. “They told us it would be better to use a synonym—grande vidure,” Espinoza says.

“Carmenère has to have a touch of pyrazines [giving a green character], because that’s in its DNA.”
—Marcelo Retamal
While other producers debated the future of “Chilean merlot,” the wine Carmen launched as Cabernet Sauvignon–Grand Vidure Reserva remained the only “official” carmenère made in Chile for two years. Then, in 1996, Santa Inés (known as De Martino today) bottled a wine labeled carmenère—the first Chilean wine to use that name.

Marcelo Retamal had just joined the Santa Inés team and now heads up the winemaking for De Martino. “The truth is that it was not our idea,”he admits. In fact, the buyers at Tesco, the English supermarket chain, requested it. “They thought it was good to have something new from Chile, so we made a varietal version, without wood, for them, and sold it in other markets as well,” Retamal tells me.

The wine came from the Alto de Piedras vineyard, an estate parcel in Isla del Maipo that today produces the winery’s top carmenère. The vineyard covers ten acres of stones and clay on a terrace above the Maipo River, and Retamal preferred the fruit it grew over the carmenère grown on the sandier soils near the river, which tended to be aggressively green in flavor.

That green, vegetal note—from methoxypyrazines, the same compound that gives bell peppers their hallmark flavor and comes up in some underripe grape varieties—has been one of the central themes in the discussion of carmenère in Chile. Retamal remembers that the first two vintages of Santa Inés carmenère balanced the grape’s vegetal side with red fruit, so the green notes added complexity rather than dominating the flavor. “Carmenère has to have a touch of pyrazines, because that’s in its DNA,” says Retamal. However, by the end of the 1990s, in Chile and around the world, the market began to favor fuller, riper reds. Carmenère’s green notes began to look more like a defect than a virtue. So producers began to harvest it much later and age it in new oak—a regimen that made it taste like so many other “international” reds.

Sebastián Labbé has gone all in with an early harvest from old vines—a fresh carmenère from the arid heat of the Colchagua hills. Sebastián Labbé has gone all in with an early harvest from old vines—a fresh carmenère from the arid heat of the Colchagua hills.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Retamal and his team decided to make a radical change. He came to grips with the fact that he didn’t like to drink his own wines, that, instead of opening a bottle of De Martino at dinner, he preferred to open something that was not so marked by wood or hyperripeness, something that didn’t hide the character of the place where it grew. In a presentation to the press in Santiago, he and his team announced that they would no longer do anything that they found might standardize the flavors in the wine, such as harvesting very late or using excessive new wood. They set a goal to articulate the rich terroir diversity and varied expressions of Chile, and the wines they presented from then on, including Alto de Piedras, were consistent with that goal. “What we did with Alto de Piedras was the same as we did with our first carmenère: That is, we harvested it early and we aged it in large foudres,” he says. The original carmenère , from 1996, was 12.5 percent alcohol. The latest release of Alto de Piedras, from the warm 2015 season in Maipo, is barely a half percent higher.

De Martino is not alone in this new direction. There is, suddenly, a trend toward earlier harvests and fresher red wines. As winegrowers focus in on the right sites for carmenère, the variety is providing juice for some of the country’s most exciting new wines. Sebastián Labbé, at Santa Rita, is now making two carmenères that present their origins unadorned. When he took over as winemaker for the Maipo-based winery in 2016, one of his first tasks was to blend the 2014 Pehuén, Santa Rita’s top carmenère. The former winemaker, Andrés Ilabaca, had provided him with a number of components in barrels. Many of them were very ripe and voluptuous; but there were others, harvested earlier, as an experiment, and they were fresher, with red fruit and some pyrazines. Labbé emphasized those fresher components in the final blend and presented a radically different style than Pehuén had offered in previous vintages. “I liked the result so much that I decided to make another carmenère,” he tells me, “but this time with one hundred percent fresher fruit.” That wine, the 2017 Floresta Carmenère, is one of his most notable achievements so far (it’s recommended in this issue, though not currently available in the US market).

Labbé buys the fruit for this wine from a vineyard in Apalta, in Colchagua, where the Muñoz family has been working for generations with vines that are now 70 years old. “It is unusual for an old vineyard like this to have been planted on hillsides,” Labbé says. “Normally, vines were planted in the low, flat areas where they could easily reach the water table. Plus, the hillsides have less fertile soils, with mixtures of clays, but also a lot of granite.”

For Labbé, the key to growing good carmenère is poor soils and limited water. “Our theory is that the production of pyrazines stops when the vegetative growth does. If there is a lot of water, this growth never stops.” In 2017, the challenge was not excess water, but heat, as the harvest season was the warmest of the last decade. Labbé started tasting the grapes in the first week of February and chose to harvest on February 15, while the fruit was still focused on the red side of the spectrum, producing a wine that held some soft touches of green spice.

Labbé acknowledges that those green notes are not universally loved, but he believes that the freshness and drinkability of the wine will win people over.

Rodrigo Zamorano, from the Caliterra winery, says, “I lost my fear of pyrazines simply because I got tired of avoiding them. And I also started appreciating those less ambitious wines, which were harvested earlier and which were much fresher and easier to drink.” Zamorano also works with vines in Colchagua, in a horseshoe-shaped vineyard framed by hills.

In the lower sectors of the vineyard, where the soils have more clay, Zamorano finds that carmenère produces round, ripe wines. He prefers the fruit from higher parcels, where the soils are a mix of clay and granite. “The wines are more angular,” he says, “sharper and more delineated.”

“I started appreciating those less ambitious wines, which were harvested earlier and which were much fresher and easier to drink.”
—Rodrigo Zamorano
Before Zamorano joined Caliterra in 2011, the hillside vines were harvested very late. By tasting the grapes and experimenting in the winery, Zamorano realized that the pyrazines those grapes initially showed ended up fusing with the fruit flavors; and even if he picked them earlier, the same thing happened. “For someone obsessed with pyrazines, tasting that fruit would have caused nightmares. But if you have patience, you see how the flavors evolve while the wine ages in wood, and how the pyrazines meld with the fruit. The best thing is that you have very good acidity—in a variety that supposedly has very little.” At least, that’s what he’d been taught in oenology school.

In 2016, Zamorano decided to vinify the fruit from those hillside parcels and bottle it separately as Pétreo, the newest wine in Caliterra’s portfolio.

As the most recent harvest approached, Zamorano invited me to share lunch at the highest point of Caliterra’s Colchagua vineyard. He opened a bottle of Pétreo 2016 to pour with several dishes prepared by Señora Ana, Caliterra’s cook. Among them was her specialty, the torta de palta, a large cake assembled from crepes layered with vegetables and covered with thin slices of avocado, its green as intense as the leaves on the carmenère vines. That vegetarian dish might have seemed an unlikely companion for carmenère—at least, for a richer, softer version of the variety. But Pétreo shows off the fruity side of carmenère, all its freshness accompanied by subtle herbal notes. On a hot afternoon in Colchagua, the wine’s crunchy acidity makes it dangerously easy to drink.

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2018.
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