Carmenere is one of the truly ancient grapes of Europe. It may have originated in Bordeaux where it was well documented in the nineteenth century or it could have originated in Spain or Portugal where so many took root from the earliest migrations north. It could also very well be that Carmenere is the ancestor grape of all five of the current Red Bordeaux varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. There is also a distinct possibility that the Bordeaux blend of a thousand years ago was just Carmenere, previously called Grand Vidure, and Cabernet Franc, one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.
In any event it is well documented that the Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s (blog 6/11/11) meant the demise of Carmenere in Europe due to the difficulties of grafting that vine onto disease resistant American rootstocks. Records show sales of vinifera grapevines to emigres to Chile in the 1850s and later, when Phylloxera was at its worst, French winemakers took uninfected vines with them as they exited Europe for greener pastures in South America and elsewhere.
Because the wine industry is such a commercial effort, grape types are at the mercy of the wine buying public and in the late 1800s Carmenere was fading in popularity in Europe. Merlot, by contrast, has always been popular and some specific sales records of vines destined for Chile mention Merlot by name. Since the Carmenere vine resembles Merlot, many of those vines labelled Merlot were actually Carmenere. Only in autumn when its foliage turns crimson or carmine, the color from whence it gets its name, does the difference become known. So the hundred year odyssey of the incognito Carmenere in Chile ran its course through the twentieth century with the acclaimed Chilean Merlot garnering the accolades while Carmenere was largely forgotten. Merlot, as we said above, sells well everywhere and Carmenere struggles which could be an obvious commercial reason for the misidentification.
In 1994 French ampelographers in Montpellier using new DNA technology determined that Carmenere was indeed the "Merlot" of Chile and four years later in 1998, the Chilean government recognized Carmenere for what it was. Since some of the greatest of twentieth century Chilean reds have been shown to be Carmenere based all along, the grape's bonafides were assured and sales of newly labelled varietal Carmenere have been solid.
This store is offering two exceptional Carmeneres at this time. The rich yet austere 2009 Toro de Piedra red blend is 60% Carmenere and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and retails for $15/btl. The 2006 Surazo Reserva Especial Carmenere is a fully mature example that sell here for just $10/btl. Both would show well with a steak. One spice that is enigmatic for wine pairing is curry and Carmenere is thought by some to be the solution for that difficult problem.
Join us Friday November 30th from 5 to 7pm for our regular weekly tasting. There will be no Carmeneres but the tasting will be a cut above average with a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Malbec, and Merlot. Please join us.