Feature Story

New World Wine Awards: Chilean Carmenere

Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta

Scents of sweet currant and honeyed beeswax leap out of the bright depths of color in the glass: The ‘99 Clos Apalta blends carmenère and merlot in near equal proportions with cabernet sauvignon (22 percent) and malbec (13), all carrying an old-vine spiciness and creating a deep plum flavor that lasts. The richness of texture recalls the ‘97 (the vintage closer to a 50/50 blend of carmenère and merlot), and in both vintages the length of that richness is like no other Chilean estate red. It derives from the old-vine field blend at Apalta, and the significant contribution comes from carmenére.

Carmenère, once an important part of Bordeaux vineyards before phylloxera, has almost completely disappeared from its native soils. In the cool climate of Aquitaine it tends to suffer from coulure (poor fruit set after flowering) and it ripens late, putting it risk of harvest rains. In Chile, though, carmenère sufferes less from coulure, and late ripening is a benefit, lengthening the growing season and allowing the grapes to develop more complex flavors—here with far less risk of rain.

And Apalta is ideal for carmenère, already bringing out that sustained length of flavor, and possibly recreating the once-renowned longevity of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux. A vally within Chile’s coastal range, Apalta is formed by a horseshoe ring of mountains opening to the southwest, the land sloping gently down a plain along the Tinguiririca river, the fine gravel of the maicillo soils getting deeper and richer farther down. But at the high point the land and the vines produce something more distinctive. “You don’t have a lot of blends with carmenère in the world,” says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle. “And while Carmenère is essential to Clos Apalta, the character also comes from the terroir. Is it the southern exposure? [protection from the heat of the sun] The old vines? [most planted around sixty years ago, though some she believes to be over one hundred years old] The water table? [high enough for deep roots to reach it, allowing the vineyard to grow without irrigation] The sandy soil? [the Lapostolle team has noted shifts in character in different lots of wine, depending on the preponderance of sand in the soil where each was grown] The combination reflects the terroir.”

That combination of factos spoke to Michel Rolland, the Pomerol-based consulting enologist, while he was exploring Chilean vineyards with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle in 1993. “I could make great wine here,” he told her. Rolland and on-site enologist Michel Friou choose from selected parcels of the old vines to blend Clos Apalta, including primarily carmenère, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. While the skins on the merlot are more fragile, the vine ripening earlier, providing a tender, round feel to the finished wine, carmenère has a thicker skin, contributing a dark color to the blend, and what Marnier-Lapostolle describes as “a little more fruit, a vivacity.”

The team at Casa Lapostolle has recognized the role this now distinctively Chilean vine plays in their vineyard. They selected cuttings from their old vines to plant twenty more hectares of carmenère in 1997, on the hillsides above the original parcels. ■

That carmenère exists in the twenty-first century after virtually dying out at the end of the nineteenth may be some of some passing academic interest. That one of the most talented Bordeaux winemakers chose a certain plot of sixty-year-old vines for a new blend from Chile may help others to understand the asset they have in these old vines. And that there are 3,000 cases of this remarkably delicious ‘99 Clos Apalta about to come to market should drive a few smart collectors to snatch them up.

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2001.
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Tags  Carménère Day