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Is Carmenere Chile’s best hope? Chile’s winemakers weigh in

Is Carmenere Chile’s best hope? Chile’s winemakers weigh in

Tina Caputo

When it comes to Chilean wines, Carmenere is the hot topic du jour. As one of those love-it-or-hate-it varietals, Carmenere is the subject of both debate and curiosity. In case you missed the story a few years ago, Carmenere was widely planted in Bordeaux in the early 1700s, but disappeared from French vineyards in the late 1800s due to a one-two punch of declining popularity (growers began pulling it because of problems with ripening) and phylloxera. When replanting began, the French turned to more promising varietals and Carmenere was eventually forgotten.

Meanwhile, just before phylloxera hit France, growers in Chile were busy planting vines they imported from Bordeaux–including lots of Carmenere. Over the years, Carmenere became mixed in with Chile’s Merlot vines, and growers later mistook it for a Merlot clone. French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot set the record straight during a visit to Chile in 1994, when he identified the country’s mysterious “Merlot clone” as Bordeaux’s long-lost grape. DNA profiling confirmed his theory, and in 1998 the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized Carmenere as a distinct variety.

Since then, marketers have been promoting Carmenere as Chile’s flagship varietal, akin to Malbec in Argentina. Its story is certainly a compelling one, and at their best, Carmenere wines show intriguing characteristics of blackberry, coffee and spice. But the variety does have its drawbacks. The grapes are notoriously slow to ripen–Carmenere is picked even later than Cabernet Sauvignon, which exposes it to Chile’s April rains. If the grapes are not ripe enough, the wines can have a green, vegetal smell (some would call it downright funky). The variety also suffers from set problems, poor rootstock and a lack of acidity.

In a 2001 Wines & Vines story about Carmenere’s resurrection, Chilean producers overflowed with enthusiasm and admiration for the varietal (some even said they preferred it to Merlot). But on a recent visit to Chile, winemakers were singing a more reserved tune. Many expressed the opinion that, though Carmenere is important as a distinctive variety to Chile, it’s not the region’s best bet for winemaking fame.

“We don’t have any Carmenere in our winery and I think Cabernet Sauvignon has more potential for the market,” said Matias Rivera, production manager for Cousino-Macul winery in the Maipo Valley. “Carmenere is a difficult variety to work with in the vineyard and it needs a long period for good ripening. Also, the canopy management and irrigation are very important for stress control.” On the positive side, Rivera said, it is possible to produce some nice wines from Carmenere. “The wine is very good when you have the correct maturity, with good color and big structure.”

“I don’t think anybody has achieved a world-class Carmenere as a varietal wine,” commented Alfredo Vidaurre, executive director of Montes winery in the Colchagua Valley. Montes has a premium Carmenere wine in the works that may change that (the barrel sample I tasted during my visit to the winery showed great promise), but the world will have to wait another three years for its release. In the meantime, Vidaurre is content to focus on Montes’ other wines, including a fine line-up of Bordeaux varietals and “Folly,” a premium Syrah that retails for US$70.

According to Ricardo Rodriguez, viti-culturist and vineyard manager at Santa Rita winery, ripening isn’t a major problem for Carmenere in Chile. However, he said, it has poor rootstock and its root systems are prone to insect attacks–which is why some of Santa Rita’s Carmenere vines are grafted on American rootstock. Carmenere accounts for 179 of Santa Rita’s 4,702 vineyard acres, compared with 2,237 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 551 of Sauvignon blanc and 704 of Merlot.

Marco Puyo, chief winemaker for Los Vascos in the Colchagua Valley, said he believes Cabernet Sauvignon is Chile’s best varietal, and sees great potential for Syrah. Even so, he appreciates Carmenere, both for its uniqueness and the complexity it adds to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blends. “For me Carmenere is an extraordinary variety, especially if it is produced in a hot weather region like Colchagua. It has a lot of red fruit, some black pepper and a soft mouthfeel.”

Viticulturist Rene Vasquez Alarcon, of Veramonte Vineyards in the Casablanca Valley, pointed out that Carmenere plays an important role in Chile–but not necessarily a starring one. “In my opinion, Carmenere is a variety that, without a doubt, must distinguish us from the rest of the world,” he said. “Nevertheless, I believe that it is an error to think that it must be our only flag. We think that Carmenere is an excellent grape to work with, although we cannot assume that it will be the most symbolic variety for Chile in the future.

“I do not believe that the only thing that we must do is to sell our Carmenere,” Alarcon continued. “On the contrary, we must (elevate) our Merlots, as we in Veramonte are doing, and continue advancing in the production of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier. And don’t forget our Pinot noir–we are making our first steps. My opinion is (that we should not) repeat the mistakes of the past, which classified (Chile) as producing only cheap red wines of great quality.”

Though Alarcon said Carmenere produces “a one-dimensional wine” on its own, he believes that it has value as a blending grape. Alarcon adds Carmenere to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for Veramonte’s Primus blend. “I believe that we must take advantage of the Carmenere to give a greater complexity to our red wines … my feeling is that it ‘enlarges’ them, with soft velvety tannins and a distinctive aroma and flavor. We have the climate and the ground (in Chile) to produce great wines–we just began to find slopes and valleys that present excellent conditions for each variety–and it is important to begin to dare to make wines with personality. To produce (good) Carmenere is not easy. Nevertheless if everything is done right your prize is a unique wine.”

But will American consumers go for these wines? As one importer pointed out, only a few wineries–notably Casa Lapostolle and Veramonte–have been able to produce high-quality Carmeneres, and it will take more than that to make a dent in the U.S. market. “In order to build prestige you will need at least 10 to 15 selling in the market to take off and create a category, as is the case of Malbec in Argentina,” he said. Only time will tell if Carmenere will have enough staying power to become more than an interesting novelty in the eyes of American consumers.

Grape Varieties in Chile by Percentages (* hectares)

YEAR

VARIETY 1985 1994 1995 1996 1997

Cabernet Sauvignon 12.12 20.93 22.58 23.38 25.17

Merlot 1.49 4.43 4.97 5.77 8.51

Pinot noir 0.15 0.26 0.40 0.51 0.65

Pais (Mission) 43.77 30.12 28.09 27.28 23.98

Carmenere 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.52

Syrah 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.03 0.32

Cabernet franc 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.03 0.10

Other Reds 5.29 3.27 3.26 3.37 3.41

Total Reds 62.82 59.01 59.30 60.38 62.66

Chardonnay 0.36 7.82 8.09 8.04 8.75

Sauvignon blanc 7.39 11.27 11.28 11.02 10.35

Chenin blanc 0.03 0.19 0.19 0.17 0.15

Riesling 0.41 0.58 0.54 0.57 0.53

Semillon 9.23 5.10 4.87 4.67 3.82

Other Whites 19.76 16.04 15.72 15.15 13.73

Total Whites 37.18 40.99 40.70 39.62 37.34

Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00

YEAR

VARIETY 1998 1999 2000 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon 27.98 30.66 34.62 35.74

Merlot 11.16 12.02 12.35 12.05

Pinot noir 0.78 0.98 1.55 1.36

Pais (Mission) 20.48 18.11 14.61 14.09

Carmenere 1.55 2.70 4.54 5.05

Syrah 0.75 1.19 1.96 2.05

Cabernet franc 0.18 0.37 0.66 0.77

Other Reds 3.57 4.44 5.13 5.12

Total Reds 66.46 70.48 75.44 76.23

Chardonnay 8.89 8.09 7.39 7.07

Sauvignon blanc 8.96 7.69 6.54 6.24

Chenin blanc 0.14 0.11 0.07 0.05

Riesling 0.46 0.34 0.28 0.27

Semillon 3.22 2.76 1.82 1.74

Other Whites 11.87 10.54 8.47 8.41

Total Whites 33.54 29.52 24.56 23.77

Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00

* 1 hectare = 2.47 acres

Source: Servicio Agricola y Ganadero (SAG), Chilean Ministry of

Agriculture

Varietals In Chile

How important is Carmenere in Chile? In 2001, the varietal accounted for

5,407 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), which amounts to 5% of Chile’s

vineyards. (In 1996 it wasn’t even on the map.) Cabernet was the

country’s most planted varietal in 2001, followed by Pais (Mission),

Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Syrah is trailing slightly

behind Carmenere, representing about 2% of Chile’s vineyard acreage.

Vineyards in Chile by Variety (* hectares)

YEAR

VINES 1985 1994 1995 1996 1997

Cabernet Sauvignon 8,134 11,112 12,281 13,094 15,995

Merlot 1,000 2,353 2,704 3,234 5,411

Pinot noir 103 138 215 287 411

Pais (Mission) 29,384 15,990 15,280 15,280 15,241

Carmenere 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 330

Syrah 0.00 0.00 0.00 19 201

Cabernet franc 0.00 0.00 0.00 17 64

Other Reds 3,550 1,737 1,772 1,886 2,168

Total Reds 42,171 31,330 32,252 33,817 39,821

Chardonnay 245 4,150 4,402 4,503 5,563

Sauvignon blanc 4,961 5,981 6,135 6,172 6,576

Chenin blanc 18 103 106 93 98

Riesling 277 307 296 317 338

Semillon 6,195 2,708 2,649 2,616 2,427

Other Whites 13,265 8,514 8,552 8,485 8,727

Total Whites 24,961 21,763 22,140 22,186 23,729

Total 67,132 53,093 54,392 56,003 63,550

YEAR

VINES 1998 1999 2000 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon 21,094 26,172 35,967 38,227

Merlot 8,414 10,261 12,824 12,887

Pinot noir 589 839 1,613 1,450

Pais (Mission) 15,442 15,457 15,179 15,070

Carmenere 1,167 2,306 4,719 5,407

Syrah 568 1,019 2,039 2,197

Cabernet franc 138 316 689 823

Other Reds 2,692 3,786 5,329 5,477

Total Reds 50,104 60,156 78,359 81,538

Chardonnay 6,705 6,907 7,672 7,567

Sauvignon blanc 6,756 6,564 6,790 6,673

Chenin blanc 104 95 76 49

Riesling 348 286 286 286

Semillon 2,425 2,355 1,892 1,860

Other Whites 8,946 8,994 8,801 8,997

Total Whites 25,284 25,201 25,517 25,432

Total 75,388 85,357 103,876 106,970

* 1 hectare = 2.47 acres

Source: Servicio Agricola y Ganadero (SAG), Chilean Ministry of

Agriculture

RELATED ARTICLE: Chalk Hill Cultivates Carmenere

Want to see Bordeaux’s “lost varietal” in action, but can’t afford the plane ticket to Chile? No problem. Just head for Chalk Hill winery in Healdsburg, Calif. Four years ago, the winery planted a test block of Carmenere (about 50 vines total) to see how it would do.

The winery obtained the Carmenere clones from UC Davis, which imported them from Italy in the ’80s and ’90s. The two clones were originally mis-labeled as Cabernet franc. Chalk Hill’s vineyard team planted a half-acre of each clone in a Cabernet Sauvignon block chosen for its warm temperatures. According to Mark Lingenfelder, Chalk Hill’s vice president of vineyard operations, the Carmenere ripens at about the same time as the Cabernet Sauvignon (it ripens much later in Chile).

So why did they do it? “We wanted to have all of the Bordeaux varietals in our vineyards,” Lingenfelder said. “We like to experiment, and Carmenere was the last piece of the puzzle.”

The Carmenere will be blended into select Chalk Hill red wines, rather than being made into a varietal wine. “The quality would have to be extremely high for us to make a varietal wine from it,” Lingenfelder said. But they’re not ruling out the possibility. “Last year’s wine was very interesting, with soft tannins. Our winemaker said it was like a good Merlot.”

Last year the winery produced 30 gallons of wine from the Carmenere grapes. In 2004, Chalk Hill will plant an additional 2 1/2 acres of each clone, bringing its Carmenere total up to 6 acres.

T.C.

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