South American winemakers have taken lesser-known Bordeaux varietals and put them on the tip of consumers’ tongues… and palates. Chile, with its picturesque wineries in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, has embraced the cultivation of French standard-bearers. Think Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s the more obscure Carmenère that is Chile’s triumphant reclamation project.
“Carmenère has a lot of character, some spiciness and forward fruit, but it’s not a total fruit bomb,” says JB Ballard of Wine Discount Center in north-suburban Highland Park.
Typically, a discussion of Bordeaux includes the mention of five grapes. The sixth, Carmenère, is almost always omitted. Because it took so long for the fruit to ripen, French vintners gave up on it. But Chile heartily welcomed this sixth Bordeaux varietal.
There is a parallel in music. Most fans of Classic Rock say there are five Rolling Stones; pianist Ian Stewart – the “sixth Stone” – never appeared on the album covers. Shunning the bohemian look of the other Stones (he wore golf shirts and cut his hair) the barrelhouse keyboard player was simply a footnote.
Although the square-jawed Stewart is now deceased, Carmenère plantings are alive and well in Chile. It’s an expressive, plush and aromatic red. There’s often a peppery element in its bouquet, not unlike Cabernet Franc. This, along with its subtle acidity, keeps the wine from getting too flabby – nice foils for the pronounced juiciness. And, it makes for great food pairings.
One reasonably priced Carmenère is the 2008 Calina (available at the aforementioned Wine Discount Center for $7), which imparts generous fruit on the palate – initially. The wave of cherry-pie flavors is reined in by soft tannins and understated acidity. There are also aspects of roasted herbs. To read an expanded column with more Carmenère reviews from Thomas Caestecker, click here.