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Into the Heart of Carmenère

by Patricio Tapia
November 24, 2014

The wine was already in barrel in the spring of 1994 when the news reached Alvaro Espinoza, winemaker at the time for Carmen Vineyards. The merlot he had made was in fact carmenère, a variety that had disappeared from its native Bordeaux around 1860, following the Phylloxera crisis. Because it is susceptible to coulure (poor fruit set after flowering) and ripens too late for the Bordeaux climate, carmenère was rarely replanted after that initial catastrophe.

With time, it was forgotten.

A hundred and thirty-four years later, Jean Michel Boursiquot, a French ampelographer, was walking to the Carmen vineyards in the Maipo Valley, when all of a sudden he stopped in the middle of the block that had been presented to him as merlot.

Boursiquot said with a touch of embarrassment, “This isn’t merlot. This is carmenère.”

Carmen had purchased its carmenère cuttings from Pablo MorandŽé in the mid-1980s, then propagated them in ‘91 at its Alto Jahuel vineyard. MorandéŽ, who owned what was then one of the most important wine grape nurseries in Chile, had obtained the material from an old vineyard in the Colchagua Valley. “When I first saw the vineyard,” he says, “I thought it was some sort of late-ripening merlot clone, and that’s how I described the material to buyers.”

Espinoza noticed how late this “merlot” ripened in a few days later, even, than his cabernet sauvignon. “What I liked about the grapes were the suave tannins and the red fruit flavors,” Espinoza recalls. “The wine had a certain mineral note that is very characteristic of the Alto Jahuel vineyard. The problem was the tendency toward vegetal aromas, which diminished, we noticed, if we harvested later, in mid-May.

The Alto Jahuel carmenère grows in about 10 acres of thin and loamy soils with plenty of stones, as well as a community of margarodes. These insects, which feed on the roots and eventually kill the vine, are common in the Maipo vineyards. But this particular combination of factors results in low yields per acre and, consequently, concentrated flavors in the fruit.

Given that fruit, Espinoza pushed to extract as much as possible. “We used to macerate the wine for about a month, including the week of fermentation,” he recalls. The 1999 blend, the last Espinoza made at Carmen before setting off as an independent consultant, has about 60 percent carmenère, while the rest is cabernet sauvignon from the Carneros block of the same estate. In this case, the vines are more than 30 years old, and they also provide the fruit for the Carmen Gold Reserve.

The wine’s structure is determined by the concentration of that old vine cabernet, which also contributes the classic spicy notes typical of the variety. The carmenère, in turn, provides smoothness, strong aromatics full of fresh red fruit and a gentle acidity to the balance.

Considering how hot the Maipo region can get, this red doesn’t seem hyper ripe. According to Espinoza, that’s because the Alto Jahuel area isn’t as hot as the rest of the Maipo, thanks to the cool afternoon breezes that come off the Andes during the ripening season. Those breezes are transformed in the glass into fresh red fruit, the mineral character Espinoza mentioned and the spice from the cabernet, which adds complexity. What once was a Bordeaux blend is now distinctly Chilean.

When Chile began to import French varieties around 1855, the most anyone knew about the vines was whether they were red or white. Those early shipments included a mix of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and merlot (the “Bordeaux blend,” as it was called). They also included the original carmenère vines, just a few years before phylloxera would bring their demise in Bordeaux.

Although the official registers have been lost, Andrés Larraín, the head of the Concha y Toro agricultural division, believes that the old Peumo vineyard was part of those first plantations. The vineyard has been in the firm’s hands since its establishment in the 19th century. “In the mid-1970s, we undertook a process of plant identification in that vineyard,” Larra’n explains. “We did a field selection of what we thought was merlot and began to plant the new vineyards in Peumo.”

Those vines have gone on to produce one of Chile’s most provocative carmenères, the 1999 Terrunyo. It’s a fresh, spicy wine, the ripe black fruit amplified thanks to a lively acidity that lif?ts it, forming it into a juicy, concentrated softness. That transformation takes place in a particular area of the Rapel Valley, under the guidance of Ignacio Recabarren.

The Peumo vineyard where this carmenère grows is far from the cold winds off the Andes. The vines benefit, however, from the winds that come off the Pacific Ocean, blowing inland up the Cachapoal River every afternoon. These breezes cut the intensity of the summer heat and allow the carmenère to ripen slowly.

Recabarren compares the climate around Peumo with that of the Casablanca Valley, in that the weather turns cold in the fall. “In Peumo I start harvesting in late April and finish in the first week of May,” he says. “These dates are very close to what I saw when I was with the Casablanca winery, whose Santa Isabel vineyards are located in one of the coldest sectors of that valley.”

The Peumo carmenère comes from block 21, which was planted in 1983 on well-drained loam soils. During dry summers like ‘99, the water table drops to as low as four meters, diminishing the vigor of the carmenère. Without access to water, the vines create berries with concentrated fruit flavors and without any vegetal notes.

Alvaro Espinoza Alvaro Espinoza
Recabarren shares Espinozas conviction that carmenère doesn’t work on its own, that it needs the structure of cabernet sauvignon to round it out, to give it “that something that you sense is missing when you taste the wine and it just sort of falls off,” he says. The blend also allows a better development in the bottle. The 1999 Terrunyo is 18 percent cabernet sauvignon from the Pirque Viejo estate, a terraced vineyard planted in the ‘70s near the Maipo River at the foot of the Andes. The cool climate creates a cabernet with firm tannins for the blend, together with a natural acidity that fills in where the carmenère is softer. Alternatively, when blending the ‘99 Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon from Pirque Viejo, Recabarren included 15 percent Peumo carmenère to cover the cabernet tannins with a blanket of ripe fruits and soft acidity, so you can taste the cold influence of the Andes merging with the mild Peumo climate.

Thanks to that climate, Recabarren received the carmenère grapes in perfect condition in 1999. That allowed him to risk a cold pre-fermentation maceration to extract aromas and color. “The grapes must be fully ripe and very clean,” he says, “otherwise, the technique won’t work.”

In the winery, he divides the must into three lots. The first (around 40 percent of the blend) is cold macerated for three to four days to achieve color, fruit and elegance. The second lot is processed using classic winemaking techniques: fermentation at 80° to 82° degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a long maceration. This lot contributes tannin structure to the final blend. The third lot is fermented at a slightly higher temperature (86°) and given a short maceration. Recabarren uses this short, hot maceration to accentuate the fruit ripeness and the powerful, round tannins.

He aged the final blend in French oak barrels for 20 months. As Recabarren explains, “carmenère is like a wild colt that needs some oak to tame it. But you have to be careful, because the variety’s beauty is its fruit, and that’s easily lost if you go overboard on the oak.”

This translates to just 20 percent new barrels, the rest being one or two years old. That allows him to age the wine as long as necessary to facilitate a slow, natural process of maturation and clarification.

“Carmenère becomes reductive more easily than other varieties,” Recabarren notes, “so the oxygen that the wine receives during racking and barrel aging is beneficial. After twenty months, the wine is clean, and further clarification is almost unnecessary. We bottle the wine unfiltered.”

The resulting wine has the elegance that the variety acquires when blended with cabernet and the ripe, almost chocolatey character carmenère of harvested at its peak.

However delicious that perfectly ripe carmenère may be, the sad truth is that the vine rarely per forms at this level. Instead, vigorous carmenère frequently smells like green pepper, a vegetal character in far too many wines from lesser terroir.

Michel Rolland, the consultant from Pomerol who guides the winemaking program at Casa Lapostolle in Apalta, in the heart of the Colchagua Valley, says that carmenère can be a tricky variety: “All the indicators may be telling you to pick, and, in fact, if you hold your nose and taste those wines, you will probably think they are ripe. But the variety is slow to develop its aromas. It needs time, as well as the perfect cocktail of low yields, restricted irrigation, considerable leaf-pulling toward the end of ripening and, ideally, old vines that produce small quantities of very good quality fruit. Then you have to go out into the vineyard and taste the grapes.”

Michel Friou, winemaker at Casa Lapostolle Michel Friou, winemaker at Casa Lapostolle
Walking among the sixty-year-old vines in Apalta, Michel Friou, the resident winemaker at Casa Lapostolle, says that here in hot, sunny Apalta, it is relatively easy to determine the aromatic ripeness o?f carmenère. “In the case of cabernet sauvignon, the point at which the fruit ceases to have green notes and begins to display ripe aromas is not clear-cut. With carmenère, on the other hand, you just have to taste the grapes, and the turning point is immediately obvious. One day the fruit has vegetal notes, and the next it is ripe.”

And it’s that undeniably ripe, almost candied, powerful, voluptuous carmenère that’s built into Clos Apalta—a blend that left no one indifferent when the 1997 vintage was first released. (Imagine a brunette Jayne Mansfield….) That first vintage was mostly carmenère and merlot, plus a small percentage of cabernet sauvignon. The next Clos was made in ‘99, when the cabernet sauvignon looked so good that Rolland and Friou decided to
put more of it into the blend (22 percent). They also added a bit of malbec (13 percent), while the balance was equal parts merlot and carmenère.

The resulting wine is much more concentrated than the first, its tannins firmer, even as it retains that explosive, sweet ripeness. To get that fruit maturity, Rolland and Friou repeatedly postponed the picking until the end of May.

The Apalta vineyard is tucked away in a small valley in the Coastal range. The vines are planted on a hillside facing south, so the mountains protect them from the most intense solar radiation through the hot summer months. As in Peumo, the water table drops dramatically during the ripening period, minimizing the amount of water available to the roots and further concentrat ing the ripe flavors of the clusters. The soil combination maicillo (a kind of fine granite) and sand is another important factor. The maicillo retains just enough humidity to prevent excessive water stress in the vines, while the sand allows the remaining water to drain freely away.

That concentration is also due to the age of the vines. While their exact age and origin isn’t known, and there are no registries to prove it, they are probably close descendants of the first vines that arrived in Chile. All that is known is that they have always been there; some could easily be a hundred years old.

Casa Lapostolle is propagating these carmenère vines, using cuttings from the old vineyard. Rolland and Friou’s management practices in this new 50-acre vineyard are similar to the old, but they restrict the yields even further. The goal is to get 2.2 pounds per plant in ten years’ time, with a planting density of 2,670 vines per acre. The 2001 harvest yielded slightly more than a fifth of a pound of tiny clusters per vine.

In the barrel room, Friou offers taste from that new vineyard. There isn’t a trace of greenness; rather, the wine shows fresh red fruit and a soft balance. Friou explains, “Many made from young vines, and it is common for them to have green aromas as a result of excessive yields. That’s why we want to take it slow with this vineyard, increasing the kilos gradually to find out where the limit is, to see how far we can go.”

Folland and Friou like long macerations to get the most extraction possible for Clos. The ripeness and the perfect conditions of the fruit allow them to undertake a cold maceration followed by a prolonged fermentation that lasts nearly two weeks, owing to the exclusive use of the native yeast that occurs naturally in the vineyard. Post-fermentation maceration lastst another two weeks, and the wine is then sent to barrel.

“Carmenère goes very well with oak, but only when the wine is concentrated. Otherwise, the toast overpowers the fruit,” notes Friou. Whereas the more delicate ‘97 Clos spent 15 months in barrel, the more powerful ‘99 was aged for 20. According to Friou, that decision was based not only on the power of the carmenère, but also— and especially— on the concentration of the cabernet sauvignon.

Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at Santa Inés (right), Ignacio Recabarren (left), winemaker for Terrunyo at Concha y Toro Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at Santa Inés (right), Ignacio Recabarren (left), winemaker for Terrunyo at Concha y Toro
One of the main questions that wine growers ask about the carmenère is what type of soil is best for the variety. Santa Inés was one of the first wineries to admit that its merlot was really carmenère. Upon deciding to launch a reserve carmenère, Santa Inés turned to a 12-acre vineyard planted in 1993 on an old riverbed of the Maipo River. They had to select the fruit very carefully, however, since this small vineyard features three distinct types of soil, each of which gives different results.

According to Marcelo Retamal, the Santa Inés winemaker, “The less fertile sectors with sandy, rocky soils gave the worst results, as did the more fertile lime soils. The vegetal notes dominate, and it is extremely difficult to achieve balance in the vine.”

The chosen sector lies right in the middle of the vineyard, the soil a mix of sand, lime and rocks. During the 1998 growing season, Retamal noticed that the vines in this area were easier to manage, and they had a better balance between leaves and clusters. He kept the lot separate, and the wine was noticeably better than the rest.

In 1999, the Santa Inés Reserva de Familia offers another reflection of climate and soil on carmenère. The hot Ila de Maipo zone and the stones’ capacity for reflecting that heat back to each plant translate into ripe, sweet aromas, while the palate strikes a balance between fresh acidity and round, juicy fruit flavors. It’s blended with nine percent cabernet, from the very hot Colchagua Valley, and that component is noticeable in the way the tannins enter the mouth, like a skater sliding across the ice.

The voyage to the bottom of carmenère has only recently begun in Chile. And as the varitey is not widely grown anywhere else in the world (though wines in Friuli thought to be cabernet franc have recently been identified as carmenère), it will take time and research to determine how to make more wines of the caliber of those mentioned here. Thanks to nature, the first steps toward that understanding have been taken in the context of an excellent vintage like 1999. But even so, there are still more vegetal carmenères in the market than great ripe ones. The exploration has just begun. Buy carefully now, and stand by for even better wines from 2001 and beyond.

photos by Sergio Pérez

This feature appears in the print edition of February 2002.
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Tags  Carménère Day