The Mistaken Identity

Like the plot straight out of a book from the Romantic era, sometimes it takes a masqueraded or mistaken identity to survive. In the vinous world, the protagonist in such a plot is Carménère.

The name of the variety comes from “carmin”, meaning “crimson” in French, owing to the colour of its autumn foliage. Hailing from Bordeaux, Carménère used to be one of the main varieties in Médoc and Graves before the 18th century, often blended with Cabernet Franc. It remained important until the phylloxera plague, which led to its fall from grace and near-extinction in France.

In Bordeaux, Carménère has for long been suspected to be a clone of Merlot, as their leaves are so strikingly similar, and their harvesting time is but two weeks apart. It is also known as Grande Vidure in Bordeaux, whereas Vidure is the local name of a particular clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, giving rise to speculations that Carménère may also be related to Cabernet Sauvignon. One thing for sure is that this is one the oldest varieties still in existence today, certainly predating the emergence of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

During the phylloxera plague, Carménère was savaged particularly badly. Subsequent to the Armageddon, phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks were introduced to the other side of the Atlantic, but it did not take grafting well. Not a low-maintenance variety, Carménère requires warmth, sunshine and dry weather, but is low-yielding and susceptible to odium. None of these reasons alone suffices to condemn the variety to the dustbin of history, but with all factors combined, it fell into oblivion in France.

Given care, this relatively late-ripening, deeply pigmented variety can produce wines combining the plummy flavours of Merlot and the herbaceous complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon. At present, Carménère is but sparingly planted and used in Bordeaux, similar to Petit Verdot, but it has found a new home in Chile (e.g. Colchagua Valley, Maipo Valley and Rapel Valley), as well as healthy footholds in New Zealand, California, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Cuttings of Carménère were introduced to Chile before the phylloxera plague, and as Chile was one of the countries least-affected by it, time capsules of ungrafted European stock still exist in the country. In the mid-1990s, laboratory tests discovered that many Merlot vines in Chile were in fact Carménère. A century-old mistake no doubt, but one that is a blessing in disguise for Carménère.

San José de Apalta Rapel Valley Carménère Reserva 2008

Rich garnet with bright carmine-crimson rim, the composed nose offers mulberry, liquorice, coffea arabica and tobacco leaf. Buttressed by generous acidity and silky tannins, the rounded plate delivers damson, tomato leaf, spice box and gunpowder tea. Medium-full bodied at 14.5%, the dense entry develops into an animated mid-palate, leading to a persistent finish.

Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages

Categories World of Bacchus