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Carmenère Rediscovered
The Lost Key To Bordeaux’s Great 19th Century Wines Unlocks a New Future In Chile

by Joshua Greene
November 24, 2014

Santiago sprawls from Belle Epoque façades downtown in a slow Andean ascent toward the fashionable residential high ground. In the other direction, industry and warehouses stretch our over miles of flatlands. Part of this old, dilapidated sector is filled with loft buildings awaiting restoration, Santiago’s equivalent of SoHo in New York or SoMa in San Francisco, before the gentry moved in. This is where Pablo Baron and two partners found a space for Puro Chile—the name of a long-defunct communist newspaper, now the name of a wine bar crammed with young Chileans every weekend.

The door is double-paned glass with chili peppers trapped in between. The floor is made up of glass tiles open to an installation by a different artist every month. For June, it was filled with yellow corn kernels glowing in surreal light. Beautiful people mingle with punks in a small back room, where the ceviche chef offers places of shellfish and open bottles of white wine to guests perched on call stools that look like bongo drums.

In the small front dining room below the open kitchen, Baron orders plates of olives, aged sheeps’ cheese, sautéed wild mushrooms. He’s grabbed a table with Patricio Tapia, the 27-year-old wine writer for El Mercurio, who happens to live around the corner, and who helps select wines for the long list that is, as the name implies, purely Chilean. There was a time, not more than a year or two ago, when old people were the market for wine in Chile. As we kick back a velvety La Fortuna Cabernet, Baron’s favorite red of the moment, the scene feels remarkably new. It’s not a copy of something in the States, nor is it what anyone might think of as “South American.” It’s part of a viral new culture: The people of Chile, finally healing after years of political turmoil, are beginning to play with freedom.

In Chile, wine and freedom have grown up together. And since most of this is country’s wealth comes from mining, fruit production, salmon farming and other raw material industries, wine is quickly becoming the only export that carries a stamp of Chilean style. There is no other consumer product fashioned from Chilean raw materials by Chilean hands to be sent off to world markets.

The pace of change has accelerated since the first free elections were held here in ‘89. At that time cabernet was the red wine of Chile, and the great hope for exports. But Chilean viticulture wasn’t established with cabernet alone.

New Wines from Old Varietals

On another evening, and in a completely different part of town, Agustin Huneeus, Chilean-born president of California’s Franciscan Estate Selections, points our how different Chile’s viticultural history is from that of any other New World region. “Remember that the Chileans in the 1850s sent their people to Bordeaux to bring back barrels, vines, viticulturists,” Huneeus mused in his soft Chilean manner, pausing to replenish his plate of oysters. It’s family night around the kitchen cable of his Santiago apartment—lemon-shivering oysters, poached fish, bread, and a bottle of chardonnay from Franciscan’s Veramonte project in Casablanca.

“Chileans weren’t colonists who came here and grew grapes as they had in the old country. We were remote in our development of the wine business.” Since all the vines and all the knowledge were imported at once, viticulture developed here in a separate, parallel universe, from a starting point in Bordeaux when the vineyards were quite different than they are today. At that time, prior to phylloxera, the Bordeaux vineyards were widely planted with a grape called carmenère; other important grapes at the time included malbec, merlot and cabernets sauvignon and franc. Once the vines traveled from Bordeaux to the dry, remote climate around Santiago, the immigrant vines have had a radically different history from their French siblings.

Phylloxera wiped out the Bordeaux vineyards in the late 19th century, and the Bordelais replanted with vines that provided the greatest resistance to disease. Cabernets sauvignon and franc, as well as merlot were the best performers in the new vineyards. Carmenère was prone to difficulties with coulure (shattering of the flowers) and oidium (mildew) in the damp Bordeaux climate, and its small yields eventually led to a dramatic decline. Today, there are only ten hectares of carmenère in the Medoc, a lost variety abandoned for its difficult nature, not for the quality of the wine.

Nineteenth century viticulturists praised carmenère for its important contribution to the quality of Bordeaux wines. Armound d’Armilhacq, then proprietor and magistrate of the Medoc, wrote this description of the carmenère grape in 1867: “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 cabernets, to which it adds a rounder flavor. It lasts about as long, and with age, improves toward perfection.”

Jean-Bertrand Delmas, in his Collection Ampélographique du Chateau Haut-Brion (1989), concurred with this earlier description. Carmenère’s wines “resemble chose of merlot for their roundness and suppleness, and they approach cabernet sauvignon for their aromas and tannins… The wine is long in the mouth, very harmonious, and presents an ensemble of exceptional qualities.” Too bad there’s none left in Bordeaux.

On the other hand, it turns out there is a lot of carmenère in Chile. In fact, Huneeus and his viticulturists have found that most of the Chilean merlot vines they planted in Casablanca are not merlot at all, but carmenère. “The easy thing to say is that this is merlot. But the truth is, the vine is absolutely different. It matures after cabernet, while merlot matures earlier. The carmenère is a bear to grow. I think what happened in Chile is that the vines were brought in together, the carmenère has more vigor than merlot, and little by little it has become prevalent.” In Huneeus’ young vineyard , there are vines that look and behave like merlot, rather than something else. They are harvested separately, and Veramonte’s French enologist, Gaëtan Carron, has made two separate wines—a “Primus Merlot” from the carmenère, and what has come to be called a “merlot-merlot.” The wines are both good, but completely different. The carmenère has generous black cherry aromas, and a long, spicy back palate. The merlot-merlot is cleaner, the fruit more like red plums, and the length of flavor brighter rather than the deeper, denser spice of the carmenère.

Yet both are being sold as merlot. Huneeus has a fact sheet that reads “Veramonte ‘95 Primus Merlot, Variety: 100% Carmenère.” Is this some strange brain dysfunction brought on by too many fresh oysters? “We’d prefer to label it carmenère,” he says, “but since we bottle the wine in the States, we were not allowed to label it anything but merlot. The BATF has a logical stand: whatever your export certificate says, you can put on the bottle. The Chilean government does not yet recognize carmenère; they call it merlot, and that’s what the certificate says. We tried carmenère, but the BATF said no. As soon as the authorities allow it, we’ll label Primus as carmenère.”

Chilean Limbo

There are, however, wines bottled in Chile labeled with the grape name, such as De Martino Carmenère, and Carmen Grande Vidure Cabernet (grande vidure is a synonym for carmenère). Although the government doesn’t recognize carmenère as a Chilean variety, it is not forbidden either. Recently, ChileVid (an export association for Chilean wineries) and the Chilean Association of Agronomists and Enologists wrote a letter to the government, requesting that carmenère be added to the list of recognized varieties. Until it is, the miraculous appearance of carmenère in Chile awaits official sanction.

Agustin Huneeus, of Franciscan Estate Selections, planted acres of merlot in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, only to find it is actually carmenère. Agustin Huneeus, of Franciscan Estate Selections, planted acres of merlot in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, only to find it is actually carmenère.
In Isla del Maipo, Paula De Martino first discovered carmenère in her family’s vineyards in 1991, when Fondacion Chile brought French ampelographer Claude Valar to consult on the vines. Like other intrigued growers, the De Martinos decided to cultivate carmenère on its own to see what it would produce. The ‘96 vintage provided their first varietally labeled carmenère. De Martino’s consulting enologist, Aurelio Montes, believes the variety will be best used in blends.

Further south, in Buin, Alvaro Espinoza became aware of the difference in carmenère when he first came to Viña Carmen in ‘92. The original plant material was identified at their vineyards in Palmilla (Colchagua). “At first, we thought that the vines were some clone of cabernet franc, or maybe merlot, because of the shape of the leaves. We invited two ampelographers from Montpellier, and both of them told us it was carmenère. We sent some plant material to the Faculty of Agronomy at the Catholic University in Santiago and they confirmed it.”

Espinoza made his first Reserve blend in ‘93, working with sixty percent carmenère and forty percent cabernet sauvignon. “It ripens after cabernet, and the acidity is very low,” he explains. “So we bring it up with cabernet.” In ‘94, he began working with his viticultural ream to purify twelve hectares of carmenère at the Carmen estate vineyards in Buin. Carmen’s team had been waiting to experiment with the Geneva double curtain trellis and decided to start with carmenère, to allow more sunlight to reach the grape bunches of this vigorous vine. Each year, they are grafting more vines over to carmenère, so that they will have one pure vineyard block. For now, Espinoza says, it’s easy to harvest the carmenère separately because the leaves turn red as the grapes ripen (he’s not sure whether this is a viral problem or a characteristic of the variety). In the winery, Espinoza treats carmenère like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, though he allows more maceration time for grapes that can handle it. Generally, his merlot gets 12 to 15 days, carmenère 18 to 20 days, and the best cabernet grapes 25 to 30.

Espinoza achieved his first dramatic success with the Grande Vidure-Cabernet blend in his ‘95 Reserve. Recommended in this issue with 92 points (see page 64), the wine has remarkable structure and balance. The blend seems to bring forth the carmenère’s best qualities, including a rich density of texture, and complex flavors that last on the palate. While it’s intriguing to taste carmenère alone, its best attributes come alive when combined in this sort of traditional Bordeaux blend.

The M·Word

Paul Pontallier, partner in Aquitania (and Chateau Margaux regisseur), says carmenère will add complexity to his Bordeaux-style blend in Chile. Paul Pontallier, partner in Aquitania (and Chateau Margaux regisseur), says carmenère will add complexity to his Bordeaux-style blend in Chile.
Paul Pontallier was regisseur at Chateau Margaux when Alvaro Espinoza apprenticed there in ‘88 and ‘89. Now Pontallier uses whatever downtime he has at Margaux to travel to Chile, where he and Cos d’Estournel’s Bruno Prats have gone into partnership. At Viña Aquitania, their vineyard and winery just up the hill from Cousiño Macul in Santiago, they produce a Bordeaux-style blend under the Paul Bruno label. “Ten percent of our vineyard is carmenère,” Pontallier explained over dinner in Santiago. “One day when we arrived from France, we looked at the first shoots and we didn’t know what it was. We asked a French specialist, who identified it as an old Medoc variety, which was once very important. We planted it by mistake, but it will add more complexity to our wines.”

On this particular evening, Pontallier was the guest of honor at the home of Federico and Isabel Mekis in Santiago. Mekis, a young international lawyer and former Chilean Senator, met Pontallier in Bordeaux, and they became fast friends. The small party included the aristocracy of Chilean wine, though talk had been less about wine than winter colds or travel to any place warm. The conversation stopped, however, when it turned to carmenère.

‘‘I’ve tasted your new merlot,” Pontallier was heard saying to one of the guests, “and it is fantastic wine, bur it isn’t merlot. It’s carmenère.”

The producer put his hand on his forehead in mock despair, “Paul, don’t cause me problems,” he said, rolling his eyes.

No matter how great a wine carmenère can make, the producers in Chile know it may never have the marketing power of the m-word. Ten years ago, merlot had little consumer recognition as a wine name, and the current confusion in Chile’s vineyards would not have been an issue. Now, whether or nor merlot tastes like merlot, the fact that the bottle says merlot is enough to sell the wine. Chile’s wine industry is not attempting to mislead consumers. They themselves are only now discovering what is in their vineyards. As new vineyards are planted, the discovery of carmenère has viticulturists looking more carefully at plant material.

According to Ignacio Recabarren, Chile’s leading enologist who makes merlot for several wineries including the Trio Merlot for Concha y Toro (see the Chilean Top Ten list on page 22), many growers have been “cleaning” their merlot vineyards over the last year or two. Blocks that were planted to a mix of Bordeaux varieties are being carefully examined. “Merlot was very often planted with malbec,” Recabarren explained, “and many wineries are grafting these malbec vines to merlot, so the wines are getting better. It’s possible that we have some carmenère in Chile, and if we do, it is blended in the vineyards with merlot.

Alvaro Espinoza, at Viña Carmen, has created the first super-premium wine based on carmenère in Chile. Alvaro Espinoza, at Viña Carmen, has created the first super-premium wine based on carmenère in Chile.
“Since the Trio brand is growing so quickly, there has been a redistribution of the Concha y Toro vineyards to allow more sources for the Trio Merlot. All the best vineyards we have in Peumo are now going into Trio. We are working this year to clarify these merlot vineyards, to check what we have in each plot, and where we find we have some other variety, we are marking the vine for replacement. This year, the vines we identify as carmenère will be harvested separately, and made in a separate lot. You know that merlot right now in Chile is the most expensive variety. Merlot grapes sell for one dollar a kilo now. But carmenère has a very good reputation. I told Rafael Guilisasti [the president of Concha y Toro] that we might be able to get a better price for carmenère than merlot.”

The varietal confusion now getting sorted out in Chile is actually rife throughout the wine world, with different varieties going by similar names in different countries. Until very recently, for example, California vintners were allowed to call a particular variety gamay beaujolais or pinor noir, depending on their labeling preference. To solve the confusion, the BATF forced producers to choose one or the other permanently, but there was never any ampelographic proof required. In Chile, while the discovery of this lost great grape of Bordeaux is potentially a distinguishing factor in their wines, it also comes as a mixed blessing. For years, everyone thought the grapes were merlot, and Chile can put great quality wines in a merlot bottle for a lot less than anywhere else in the world. For the time being, this is a major tactical advantage in the international wine market.

Pure Merlot

Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker for Concha y Toro’s Trio, believes that carmenère grapes may one day be the most expensive in Chile. Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker for Concha y Toro’s Trio, believes that carmenère grapes may one day be the most expensive in Chile.
Of course, there is plenty of merlot in Chile, and there are great wines being made from it. Casa Lapostolle ‘94 Cuvee Alexandre Merlot is among the best—and it ranks number one on the annual W&S Top Ten list of Chilean wines (see page 22). There’s a lot of money and talent behind this wine, and you can smell it in the glass. The money is part Chilean. That has to do with the ownership of twenty hectares and the control of one hundred more in Apalta, an extraordinary hillside vineyard in Colchagua where old-vine merlot and cabernet sauvignon have been farmed without irrigation for the last twenty years. Pepe Rabat’s family bought a ranch here in the seventies, after they sold their 300-hectare vineyard in Santa Maria de Manquehue (now a swank residential neighborhood of Santiago).

The French money comes from the Marnier-Lapostolle family, best known for their Grand Marnier liqueur. The talent comes from a Chilean exclusive Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle arranged with Michel Rolland, the noted consultant from Pomerol, himself best-known perhaps for turning a sleeping Château Clinet into one of the brightest stars of the region. ■

Rolland on Malbec

Michel Rolland is making extraordinary merlot at Casa Lapostolle in Chile, but when he crosses the Andes to Trapiche’s 250 hectares of vines in Tupungato, he leaves merlot behind. Rolland has worked in Argentina for many years. Before he came to Trapiche, he had consulted for Etchart. He began an exclusive agreement to work on the wines of Trapiche in ‘95; that year, consulting on the blends, and from ‘96 onward, working not only on the winemaking, but advising on everything from vineyard practices to marketing. He is working to create a fresh, fruity style of chardonnay, less aromatic and less powerful than wines in Chile or California, “very drinkable, and not tiring,” he says. “The style of cabemet sauvignon will also be fruity and drinkable. The great wine from Argentina will be malbec.”

“The climate is totally different between Chile and Argentina. The Cordillera de los Andes is a wall, a big wall. The climate on the ocean is cool and windy, with strong oceanic influences. Behind the Cordillera it’s warmer, and there’s less difference in temperature between day and night; and in Argentina there is rain between December and February. In Chile, there is never one millimeter of water in this period.

“In Chile, we have a lot of soil with sand, sometimes clay, and sometimes it is very deep. The face of the Cordillera is steep, then immediately after the Cordillera it is sand and clay. In Argentina, the soil is mostly sand; there really isn’t clay. Close to the Cordillera, there is no transition between sand and subsoil.

“We don’t have an answer why malbec does so well here. We are speaking about terroir. The synergy among soil, climate and malbec grapes is better in Argentina than anywhere else in the world. In France, we have Cahors; it is good, but I prefer malbec in Argentina. Sometimes it is good in Chile and California, but it is not the same. This is the definition of terroir.

“Malbec has a long tradition in Argentina. Unfortunately, many growers pulled out a lot of very old malbec vines ten or fifteen years ago to plant pedro ximenez, to produce large quantities of grapes. The clone of malbec is very good in Argentina, and production conditions in the Mendoza area are incredibly consistent. Chile is completely crazy for that reason—it has big differences in terroir. In one place you can make very good wine; two hundred meters away, you can’t. So in Chile, we can have differences directly from the soil and climate. In Argentina the future for quality is in viticulture, to take care to produce the best grapes.

“If you want, with malbec it is possible to make rustic wines because of the skins. But nowadays, people like sweet, round, balanced wines, everything gentle, not aggressive. If you want to reduce the perception of tannins in a wine, you have to lengthen the maceration or keep it longer in barrel. This is how you make it softer, sweeter, better. The normal thought when the winemaker finds the tannins aggressive is to rack it, or pull it out of barrel. That’s the worst thing you can do for the wine. You have to wait.
“The ‘96 malbec has sweet tannins, concentration, excellent texture, but it’s not very aromatic. In this way, malbec is close to merlot—young merlot never has very great aroma. We have to wait. After eight months or a year of aging, malbec has more aromatics.

“As a consultant, I try to make wines for the market, and the great potential for malbec is not as a rustic, huge wine. I want to produce a balanced and elegant malbec. I hope the style will be like this in the future: a balance between density and elegance.”

W&S has consistently recommended the Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec as a fine wine at a great price. The sample from ‘96 carries with it one year of viticultural work on yield restrictions, changes in vinification and Rolland’s trademark mastery with a blend. And it is far beyond anything we’ve tasted from Trapiche in the past. If the finished wine is anywhere near as elegant, with the same beautiful, mouthwatering, ripe plum fruit at its core, it is bound to change the way red wine drinkers think of Argentina and malbec.


This feature appears in the print edition of February 1997.
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