It took many years for Chileans to embrace carmenère. Many growers believed it was a late-ripening clone of merlot, one of a range of vines that had come from Bordeaux in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1993 that Chileans discovered its true identity, and, even then, many continued to call it “Chilean merlot.” Eventually the country began to promote it as a unique offering to the world—which might have worked, had carmenère proven more flexible. Like cabernet franc, carmenère can make a thin, green wine if it’s not planted in the right soils. So, for more than a decade, many growers compensated by leaving it to ripen (or raisin), and then loaded it up with oak. Recently, W&S critic Patricio Tapia reported that things have begun to change. He’s found a new wave of carmenère from some of Chile’s most enlightened growers: Marcelo Retamal at De Martino (Alto Las Piedras), Sebastian Labbé at Santa Rita (Pehuen) and Rodrigo Zamorano at Caliterra (Pétreo)—all are working to present fresh and vivid carmenère, without any excess winemaking. Here are some more radical and exciting examples from Tapia’s tasting reports.
Gabriel Edwards’s grandmother planted this vineyard in the Almahue Valley in 1945; it’s now one of the oldest carmenère vineyards in Chile. A massal selection of vines planted on their own roots and farmed organically, the vineyard gives a radiantly fresh, complex red. There’s a breezy coolness to its herbal tobacco scents, while the red fruit feels firm, pinned to the palate by fine-grained tannins. (92 points, $21; Ambrosia Imports, Carlsbad, CA)
Earthy and herbal, this shows a lot of spiciness and peppery flavors over a layer of ripe red fruit. Grown in the sandy gravel soils of Isla de Maipo, this is a carmenère with inner energy, made of vibrant acidity and tense tannins. Pour it with braised brisket. (90 points, $20; Broadbent Selections, San Francisco, CA)
Peumo is one of the most famous areas for carmenère in Chile. The cool air that follows the Cachapoal River down from the Andes meets the intense sun of the area, allowing the grapes to mature while sustaining freshness. This 2016 is packed with red fruit, graciously combined with herbal notes in a texture that feels soft and friendly, lasting on a slightly chocolatey finish. (92 points, $24; Guarachi Wine Partners, Woodland Hills, CA)
Red fruit fills this carmenère, building density into the wine’s soft, velvety tannins. There’s also room for the herbal side of the variety, here shown without shyness in vivid high notes that work with the acidity to deliver a gentle sensation of freshness. (91 points, $25; Massanois Imports, NY)
The Peumo Vineyard extends along the north bank of the Cachapoal River, on the hillsides of the Coastal Range. This carmenère is selected from vines planted in the 1970s, with a little cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc added to enhance the wine’s tannic structure. It has flavors of blue fruit as well as carmenère’s typical herbal notes, while the sanguine character adds complexity. (95 points, $40; Excelsior Wine & Spirits, Old Brookville, NY)