Carménère is a black grape variety that was thought to only be found in Bordeaux France until DNA analysis showed high levels in Chile. These Chilean plantings had mistakenly been thought to have been Merlot. Chile is now the main area for this grape worldwide.
Carménère was thought to of gone extinct after the Phylloxera mite devastated France. It was due to the unique location of Chile, situated between the Pacific Ocean and high Andes mountain range that the grape was saved. Chile still remains one of the only Phylloxera free countries in the world, meaning many of the vines are still able to be planted on their original European rootstock.
The Grapes Characteristics:
Carménère produces medium-bodied red wines with fruity flavours of raspberry and plum, balanced with notes of black pepper and vanilla. Often Carménère wines have a herbaceous green or red pepper note. These green pepper aromas are due to a chemical component called pyrazines. Pyrazines are found in a few red grape varieties including Cabernet Franc (one of Carménères 'parent' varieties).
In Chile, any wine labelled 'Carménère' is permitted to be blended up to 15% with another grape variety. It can be difficult to spot whether another grape has been blended with Carménère, however, clues can be tasting darker, black fruits such as blackberries and blackcurrants.
The majority of Chilean Carménère is grown in the largest region, the Central Valley. In the Central Valley, key regions for Carmenère are the Maipo Valley and Rapel Valley, including the sub-regions of Colchagua Valley and Cachapoal Valley.
The Rapel Valley is a very warm area where grapes don’t struggle to ripen. This climate suits Carménère and prevents the wines having green and astringent tannins. The Colchagua Valley produces large quantities of Carménère. The region stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes mountains. The location of the vineyard affects the profile (acidity, tannin, flavours) of the wine.
Cachapoal Valley (just above the Colchagua valley) typically specialises in high-quality red wines with great ageing potential, this is due to the higher acid content of the grapes which is required for ageing wine. A top area in Cachapoal Valley is Peumo. Peumo is where the most expensive and highest-quality Carménère wines are produced.
Maipo Valley is the most historical region in Chile, located above Rapel Valley. They tend to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are still a number of producers who good grow Carmenère, producing wines that tend to be lighter and more red fruit in style.
Carménère is also grown in smaller amounts in the Coquimbo region. This northern region is extremely warm and therefore produces fruity, jammy versions of the grape. The best vineyards are located in the Andes area where the higher altitude means Carménère is able to retain more acidity and still be fresh.
The original home of Carménère where the crossing of Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet occurred to produce this variety. Very few plantings exist in Bordeaux and many refer to it as a forgotten variety, however, occasionally some old vines are discovered and are permitted to be added to the blend.
Carménère is also grown in China in very small amounts (however there is a theory the grape might be Cabernet Franc instead!).