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Feature Story

Carmenère Comes to Walla Walla

by Patrick J. Comiskey
September 10, 2018

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, and for carmenère, with me, that impression was thin, reedy, herbaceous and short. I don’t remember the bottle, but it came from Chile in the 1990s, when growers and winemakers had just uncovered carmenère’s identity and were still sussing it out.

Despite a steep learning curve, the country’s carmenères improved dramatically in little more than a decade, and by the turn of the century, carmenère growers had reined in some of the variety’s more herbaceous tendencies. Still, my bias remained more or less entrenched. I’d hear about posh new bottlings employing the variety, but I never felt compelled to seek them out. Such is the nature of bias—it will cloud your judgment long after it’s lost its relevance.

So, I came to my first carmenères from the Walla Walla Valley in the early 2010s with plenty of skepticism. These were bottlings from Seven Hills Winery, Reininger and Beresan, mostly employing fruit from Seven Hills Vineyard, a 200-plus-acre vineyard on the Oregon side of the valley established in 1980, and one of the valley’s most respected fruit sources, supplying grapes to dozens of producers.

All three of these wines were head-turners. Everything about them—the warm dark fruit set against an arresting bouquet of purple flowers, cut herbs and conifer tips—felt on point and in proportion. The wines were translucent in the glass, yet plump enough in the middle to offset any herbal overtones. Their consistency suggested that Walla Walla’s growing season—its late bud break, warm summers and extended Indian summer—dovetailed beautifully with carmenère’s late-ripening tendencies.

Of course, during all the years I’d clung to my carmenère prejudice, Chile’s viticulturists had been changing up their growing practices, homing in on the best sites (and ripping out the worst). Their favored sites provided a ripening window that preserved its aromatic uniqueness while offering a depth of flavor that makes those first bottlings seem like a distant memory. Many of the best efforts, it turned out, came from sites with terroir conditions similar to those in Walla Walla.

Carmenère’s disappearance and rediscovery is one of the more remarkable stories of forensic ampelography in the last 50 years. A grape variety with genetic origins in Bordeaux, it was once common in the Médoc in France, mentioned in censuses in the Gironde as early as 1783, alongside cabernet franc. Other texts in Bordeaux suggest that it was easily confused with cabernet franc. After the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, however, carmenère all but disappeared from France.

And almost as soon as it left Bordeaux, this variety lost its identity. It settled in Chile as “merlot,” in northeastern Italy as “cabernet franc” and in China’s Shandong province as “cabernet gernischt” (the word “gernischt,” according to grape geneticist José Vouillamoz, one of the principle authors of the opus Wine Grapes, was almost certainly a misspelling of gemischt, German for “mixed.” But just what was one to make of “mixed” cabernet?)

Carmenère’s identity crisis first gained international attention in November 1994, when the ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot paid a visit to Viña Carmen in the Maipo Valley. There, a former student pointed out a new planting of what she called merlot, and he was puzzled as to why the variety’s shoot tips were orange—merlot’s shoots didn’t behave this way. This was during flowering, and when Boursiquot saw the flowers’ oddly twisted stamens, he knew he was looking at carmenère, a variety he’d only seen in plant repositories.

So, by the time carmenère revealed itself, it was a grape variety much removed from its origins, grown around the world by a cadre of producers with only rudimentary notions as to its typicity, ideal flavor profile and potential. The one uncontestable characteristic they all noted is its late ripening—it typically comes in after cabernet sauvignon, and a month after merlot. That lateness probably contributed to its demise in the Médoc, where the threat of late-season rains makes it a risky proposition.

Vigorous and low-yielding, carmenère seems to thrive in loose, free-draining soils: alluvium in Chile, sandy soils in China, loess deposits in Walla Walla. But to make great carmenère, one must overcome the greenness in the grapes—the overt methoxypyrazines present in several Bordeaux varieties when they are not fully ripe—to move the needle from strident green-pepper flavors to subtler, more compelling accents.

In Chile, many producers addressed the greenness by planting carmenère on exceedingly warm sites, to push the variety past the pyrazine stage. But now the prevailing wisdom, in Chile and elsewhere, is that the best sites are not overly hot but offer temperate, warm seasons with moderate shifts between daytime and nighttime temperatures, to slow ripening and delay the loss of acidity and aromatic precursors.

According to Marcio Ramirez, who makes carmenère for Concho y Toro in the Peumo Valley, the vine likes moderate conditions, especially in the later ripening stages. “Our temperatures in May are very similar to September,” he told me. “That is, the temperatures are not very low; it allows carmenère leaves to remain active.”

For Ramirez, another factor is soil uniformity: “In Peumo we have a very deep soil, at least two meters deep, without the presence of stones. In Maipo you have soil with stones, gravels and rocks, ideal for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc or syrah, but not for carmenère. Carmenère does not like those restrictions; restrictive soils lead to a wine of little color, very present tannins and very marked vegetal notes.”

Vigorous and low-yielding, carmenère seems to thrive in loose, free-draining soils—alluvium in Chile, sandy soils in China, loess deposits in Walla Walla.
As it happens, several of Walla Walla’s carmenère plantings parallel these soil and climate conditions. “Warm days, cool nights, well-drained soil and lots of sunshine,” is how Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery describes it; McClellan has worked with carmenère since 2001, making a varietal bottling and blending some into his tête de cuvée, Pentad. “But I also think that Walla Walla has the right range of degree days for carmenère,” he says. “Not too hot, not too cold: That keeps it interesting.”

Tyler Grennan of Beresan agrees: “Our sites have excellent air drainage, which limits frost risk, and our soil drainage allows us to precisely control the moisture in the soil and promote deeper root structure.”

According to Chuck Reininger, the warmth of Walla Walla’s Indian summer, through September and into October, is particularly well suited to carmenère. “It usually requires a last-minute burst of heat to get it over the hump,” says Reininger. “Sometimes as little as two or three days of 75 or 80 degrees will do.”

Walla Walla’s pioneers, including Gary Figgins, Norm McKibben, Marty Clubb and Rick Small, all were drawn to Bordeaux varieties, so it was only a matter of time before growers began to experiment with carmenère. Casey McClellan, whose family planted Seven Hills Vineyard and who founded the winery by the same name, recalls that Figgins, as a partner at Seven Hills Vineyard, prevailed on them to plant some carmenère in the late nineties. (They called it grande vidure, a synonym.) Contracts quickly followed.

“Carmenère from Walla Walla has always had this streak of tobacco leaf that folds just beautifully into the berry flavors.”
—Casey McClellan
McClellan has also worked with carmenère from two other sites, Morrison Lane, near Stateline Road, and Minnick, in the Palouse Hills. And, as he points out, his house style at Seven Hills Winery has always exhibited a little green-herb flourish. So, his Bordeaux-inspired blends were well suited to a little carmenère in the mix.

“I’ve always preferred my wines from [Walla Walla] to show something other than pure fruit,” says McClellan, “and carmenère from here has always had this streak of tobacco leaf that folds just beautifully into the berry flavors.”

The best of the Walla Walla wines are fresh, with savory notes hinting at lavender and lilac, and a core of fruit that’s not so much rich as enveloping. They show slightly less power than most Chilean versions, unless you seek out a few of Chile’s latest releases (as described in Patricio Tapia’s carmenère story, in W&S’s June 2018 issue).

And Walla Walla carmenères show some grit in their tannins, suggesting the winds that buffet the southern hills of the valley, and possess acidity that’s surprisingly lively for the variety. With almost any other red variety, Seven Hills Vineyard fruit registers as powerfully ripe, but with carmenère it feels different: The wines feel leaner, and always offer a bit of that stimulating green spice.

For this critic, the new sensitivity devoted to this notoriously persnickety grape has dislodged any lingering effects of a stubborn bias.

Walla Walla Carmenère
Tasting Notes by Patrick J. Comiskey, W&S Washington wine critic

Beresan 2014 Walla Walla Valley Carmenère
A spicy, forward carmenère, this embraces the variety’s prodigious aromatic range and supports it with an array of rich, juicy fruit. Scents of black pepper and cardamom, clove and mace adorn a dark cushion of plum fruit that’s generous, ripe and delicious. Both complex and satisfying, this is ready for game birds. (92 points, $40; 500 cases)

Seven Hills 2016 Walla Walla Valley Carmenère
From a pair of Walla Walla vineyards, Minnick and Morrison Lane, this wine is leafy and bright, with scents of violet and cedar over dark plum notes. Its brambly, dark-raspberry flavors are both juicy and a bit bony, focused with firm fruit tannins, an ideal foil for a rosemary-roasted ribeye.

Reininger 2012 Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard Carmenère
This is Chuck Reininger’s ninth vintage of carmenère, and it’s spot-on. Scents of green and pink peppercorn support flavors of blueberry and plum compote. The tannins are lean and gravelly, the finish on point. Grill some lamb chops and pour. (90 points, $51; 336 cases)

Waterbrook 2015 Columbia Valley Icon Carmenère
From estate sources in the Walla Walla Valley, this wine has a lavender scent adorned by a veil of caramelly oak. The fruit is dark and sumptuous, an herbal hint returning and mingling with fi m oak tannins on the finish. This has the stuffing for grilled pork loin.

This feature appears in the print edition of Fall 2018.
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