Celebrating Carmenere, Chile's incomparable red wine

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 4:49 PM

During my post-grad years in the early 1990s, I drank a lot of Chilean red wine. Most of it was purchased in large bottles for very little money, and it was generally taken to the kind of dinner party where someone had made a bad vegetarian lasagna and someone else had tried to make tabouli, and we all crowded onto a musty couch and ate off mismatched plates. There might or might not have been a corkscrew, and it was inevitable that one person would have to sip wine from a coffee mug.

The Chilean reds we drank in those days were blends of merlot and cabernet and maybe something else. They were banal but drinkable: the kind of wine that would prompt you to say, "Yep, this is a red wine."

I look for wines with a little more character now, and so Chilean reds haven't played much of a role in my life as I've grown older. Until recently, that is. That's because I've started a new, more adult relationship with Chile's unique grape, Carmenere.

Of course, when I was younger, Carmenere didn't exist. Actually, it did, but no one was aware of it until 1994. Before that, people just thought the Chileans were growing some odd-tasting merlot.

Until the late 1800s, Carmenere had been one of the prime grapes blended in Bordeaux. But it was thought to have mostly died off in the late 19th century, during the great epidemic of phylloxera (a devastating, sap-sucking insect) in Europe.

Then in Chile in the early 1990s, winemakers got a hunch that much of their merlot might actually be Carmenere, and that eventually was verified through DNA testing by French viticulturalist Jean-Michel Boursiquot. How Carmenere got from France to Chile, and thrived, no one knows for sure. But for some reason, phylloxera has never threatened there.

Suddenly, Chile had its very own Bordeaux grape variety, just like neighboring Argentina with its popular malbec. But winemaking in Chile in the 1990s was inferior, dominated by giant wineries such as Concha y Toro. The craft, however, keeps improving, and Carmenere from Chile is really starting to come into its own. At least that's the conclusion I've come to, having tasted about 70 of them over the past couple of weeks.

What I like about the best Carmenere is its distinctive pepper, spice and deep, dark fruit character, more plum than berry. When it's good, there's really nothing like it.

The grape has been found to have very high concentrations of compounds called methoxypyrazines, which in some wines produce a strong herbaceous or green pepper aroma - even higher than, say, cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon. At times, that can be a flaw: When Carmenere smells too much like musty bell pepper, it's out of balance.

But when you get a hint of spicy green pepper on the nose, along with jammy or stewed-fruit notes, Carmenere can be delicious. Some of my friends who tasted with me puzzled over what to pair it with, but I think Carmenere works well with spicy pork, Indian food, barbecue or braised short ribs. I even enjoyed it with an oh-so-trendy Korean taco.

Though I didn't find many 100 percent Carmeneres from Chile I would want to pay more than $20 for, I discovered a bunch of great-value wines in the $12-to-$17 range. The excellent Tamaya Reserva, the best value among my tastings, sells for less than $15. Luis Felipe Edwards Reserva sells for less than $10. I also appreciated Carmenere that was blended with just a bit of cabernet sauvignon - maybe 5 to 10 percent - which gave the wine structure. Some of those blends were good buys, too: TerraNoble Gran Reserva ($16), with 4 percent cabernet, and Apaltagua Envero Reserva ($15), with 7 percent cabernet, were good examples.

As I delved deeper into Carmenere, I learned that Inama, one of my favorite producers in Italy's Veneto region, has been experimenting with the grape. Apparently, Carmenere vines also existed in the Colli Berici area near Vicenza, but they were thought to be cabernet franc until DNA testing proved otherwise. Inama, in fact, traced Carmenere all the way back to the Dalmatian Coast and Albania, where it also still exists.

Inama's Carmenere has been so well received that the winery has invested heavily in planting new Carmenere vineyards. "I see Carmenere from the Colli Berici DOC being elevated to the world stage," winemaker Stefano Inama said in an e-mail. "Some might say it is crazy, but that is what was said about cabernet sauvignon from Bolgheri and Sassicaia in the 1970s." For now, its Oratorio di San Lorenzo, at $65, is in a class by itself, the finest 100 percent Carmenere that I tasted. But its more affordable Carmenere Piu ($20; a blend of 75 percent Carmenere, 20 merlot and 5 percent Raboso Veronese) is sold locally and is also a winner.

First Chile. Now Italy. It's like a game: Where in the world will Carmenere turn up next?

Wilson is pinch-hitting for Dave McIntyre, whose column will return next week. Wilson is the author of "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits," coming from Ten Speed Press in September. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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