November 24 is International Carménère Day. And for all of you wine day naysayers, just move along. The rest of us will use these days to discover, embrace, or re-discover some great wines. This is a relatively new “wine holiday” created in 2014 by Wines of Chile. The day was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the rediscovery of Carménère. Carménère was one of the original Bordeaux grape varieties until it was wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic in the 1860s. When winemaking commenced some years later, many winemakers avoided the grape (although it is still one of the six permitted varieties) as it is late ripening and often couldn’t get ripe enough in the Bordeaux climate. The grape, preferring warm and sunny sites was also susceptible to mildew rot.
But not to worry as it found a new home in Chile. However, for the longest time – almost a century – Chileans didn’t realize they were growing Carménère. During this time, the grape was mistakenly identified as Merlot, albeit a spicier version. It wasn’t until 1994 when the mystery was solved and genetic testing revealed much of what was thought to be Merlot as Carménère. No longer the lost grape of Bordeaux, Carménère has found its place in Chile and is widely regarded as the country’s signature red variety. And though produced often as varietal wine, many winemakers are embracing the Bordeaux heritage of the grape and creating Bordeaux style blends with it.
Carménère is usually medium to full-bodied, fruity, spicy, and with medium tannins. It has a great deal of natural acidity which makes it great for food pairing. It’s one downfall is that is can have some overtly green pepper, herbaceous flavors when not fully ripened. But when it’s allowed to fully ripen, you get bold black fruit characteristics balanced by the hallmark spicy notes and smokiness. In fact it was the constant, green vegetal characteristic that kept me away from the wine. That is, until I found the right one. As someone who studies wine, I never give up on a grape and always look for new and different versions to try. So if you like Merlot (and how could you not?) but want a zestier, spicier version, give Carménère a whirl. Like Merlot, it sits in the middle of the wine spectrum for many characteristics and is quite versatile when pairing with food. So bring on the ribs, beef, lamb chops, burgers and other hearty foods of fall. Here are a few to get you started. And just a tip, be sure to give these about an hour in the decanter.
2013 Montes Purple Angel Carménère Apalta Vineyard, Rapel Valley, Chile (~$65)
My recent foray into Carménère came during a Twitter chat with the folks at Montes Wine. I was determined to find myself a bottle to participate in the chat and learn more. Lucky me, I walked into Total Wine and found myself a bottle of their Purple Angel Carménère which they deem their Super Carménère. It’s a little pricey at $65 but if I was going back in to re-discover Carménère, I wanted to see it at its best. But just know that a good quality Carménère can be had for $15-20 and a really nice bottle can be had for around $40. And boy, did it draw me back in. I loved this wine. It’s one of those cerebral wines that just kept evolving in the glass. Ripe red and black fruit, mocha, smoke, and spice accompany smooth tannins and a rich mouthfeel. A hint of earthiness presents itself as well as some minerality and floral notes as you continue along.
2013 Montes Alpha Carmenère Colchagua Valley, Chile (~$20)
For a less expensive Carménère, Montes also makes its Montes Alpha Carmenère. This is the winery’s premium label and can be had for around $20. It exhibits many similar characteristics to the Purple Angel with perhaps a bit more plum and spice but at a much more wallet friendly price. And it’s arguably a little less decadent. But a great wine to introduce yourself to Carmenère. Don’t hesitate to pop this one open any night.
2015 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Carmenere Serie Riberas Carmenere, Chile (~$19)
Concha y Toro is one of Chile’s most well known wineries so it’s no surprise that they do Carménère and do it well. Red fruit and earthiness along with a nuance of violets, this one has more of the green notes but is quite nicely balanced and drinks quite well at its price point. The wine has a freshness and vibrancy and it’s soft and mellow tannins make it go down easy. Maybe a bit too easy.
2013 Lapostolle Casa Grand Selection Carmenere, Rapel Valley, Chile (~$13)
Prominent pepper balanced by black fruit, dark chocolate, baking spice and floral and earthy notes, this entry level wine from Lapostolle has smooth and well integrated tannins. Very easy to drink and really could go with just about anything you decide to whip up for dinner during the week including grilled and braised meats. It would also be nice with wood-grilled fish.
Cheers to #CarménèreDay!