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Carménère

This page sponsored by Westbrook Wine Farm.
Historically, carménère has been difficult to grow in cold, humid climates, and, although this is one of the most ancient varieties in Bordeaux, plantings have not been maintained even in this region, let alone any other in France, or for that matter, anywhere in Europe!1

Carménère typically buds and ripens later than merlot, but earlier than both cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Yet carménère requires more heat to reach full maturity than the other red varietals planted in Bordeaux. This and its erratic tendency to develop a condition called coulure, poor fruit set after flowering, may have caused carménère to fall out of favor there.

At one time, Carménère wine was prized in the Medoc for both its depth of color and, in ripe years, flavor that can range from herbal to gamy, as well as the complexity and interest it can add to blends. Carménère berries have a fairly high juice-to-skin ratio and tend to produce wines with less acidity and tannin structure than even merlot, which its flavors somewhat resemble. Like other Bordeaux reds, an inclination to show its high methoxypyrazine content can make some Carménère wines overly vegetative.

Thought to be the antecedent of other better-known Bordeaux varietals, DNA testing has shown carménère to be the offspring of cabernet franc and gros cabernet, a now extinct variety. The Bordeaux synonym for carménère is Grand Vidure and cabernet sauvignon is also known there simply as Vidure. Some suggest that carménère may be the same as Biturica, the vine of not only ancient Roman praise, but also the word then used to call the city that became Bordeaux.

Carmènére cluster on the vine.
Carménère was imported to South America in the 1850s, along with other Bordeaux varieties, prior to the European outbreak of Phylloxera. The largest established vineyards of this variety are in Chile, although many of these were misidentified as merlot (the two vines share many similarities) for more than a century. French ampelographer Jean Michel Bousiquot discovered the truth in 1994. Regardless, the success of the variety has elevated Carménère to become a flagship Chilean wine.

In 2009, two of Chile's leading universities, with funding from Viña Casa Silva (a major producer), began a two-year study of carménère. The research seeks causes and cures for the grape's undesirable tendencies of poor fruit set, late ripening, and high pyrazine content. The project has identified more than 60 clones, with wide variations of these traits.

There may soon be something of a resurgence in plantings of carménère. In California, the virtual rescue and revival of this cultivar was the result of a twelve-year quest by Karen Mulander-Magoon, co-proprietor of the Guenoc and Langtry Estates in Lake County. Cuttings of the cultivar had to survive three years of quarantine and testing in Canada and New York, prior to admission and planting in California in the late 1990s.

*Typical Carménère Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

VEGETAL: Bell pepper

OAK (light): toast, vanilla, cream

ANIMAL: gamy

OAK (heavy): smoke, oak, tar

HERBAL: tobacco  

FRUIT: (atypical)

BOTTLE AGE: mushroom

(Too few tasting notes could be found for Carménère to further describe typicity of its wine.)

by Ray Krause and Jim LaMar


NOTES
1. Ch. Dillon, an estate in Haut-Medoc, grows carménère, but infrequently employs it in their blend.
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RESOURCES
1. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

2. Carménère, Wikipedia

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

4. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

 

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