The Curious Case of Carmenere

The ancient origins of the Carmenere grape are uncertain, and there are several theories about them.  My personal favorite is that what we now call Carmenere was known in ancient Rome as “Biturica,” and praised by such luminaries as Pliny the Elder and Columella.

Of course, evidence for this theory is inconclusive, but when I open a bottle of Carmenere, I like to think that what I’m about to drink bears at least some similarity to the wines enjoyed by Julius Caesar during his campaign in Gaul.

But regardless of its origins, the story of Carmenere takes its first interesting twist in the mid 19th century.

Starting in 1863, a plague of phylloxera ravaged the vines of Europe.  By 1875, French wine production, for example, had fallen by over 60%.  Many grape species were lost entirely, and it was widely believed that Carmenere was one of them.

Given the scope of the tragedy that had befallen the wine world, the disappearance of this species was hardly noticed, certainly not studied thoroughly, and just assumed.

Fast forward to 1994 for the next twist in the story.  A French Ampelographer named Jean Michel Bousiquot, while studying Chilean Merlot vines, discovered that a great many of them were in fact not Merlot, but Carmenere!

Apparently, some Carmenere cuttings had been imported to Chile in the 1850’s, where they were frequently confused with Merlot vines due to their many superficial similarities.  For 150 years, these farmers thought some of their Merlot vines were late bloomers, when those vines were in fact Carmenere.

Shortly after this came to light, the Chilean Department of agriculture recognized Carmenere as a distinct species, and in a few short years, Chilean wine became associated with Carmenere almost in the same way that Argentine wine is associated with Malbec.

But that’s not even the whole story.  Apparently, despite the plagues and lack of mass planting, Carmenere survived in Europe, too.

In 1990, an Italian winery acquired some vines from a French nursery purported to be Cabernet Franc.  But the growers soon realized that this was clearly not Cabernet Franc.  It ripened earlier, and both the taste and the color were different.  After years of having no idea what these vines were, it was finally established that they were Carmenere.

Carmenere hasn’t really established itself as a varietal anywhere outside of Chile, though it’s blended with other varietals in several wine regions.

Chilean Carmenere is really worth a taste.  It’s generally considered a medium-bodied grape, but I have tasted several very bold, full bodied Chilean Carmeneres.  In fact, the inspiration for this article came from a borderline full-bodied Carmenere from Trader Joe’s.  It’s called “Marchigüe Carménère Reserva,” and at $7.99 is my current hands down winner in the bang-for-the-buck category.

But my main takeaway from the story of Carmenere is that it’s this kind of thing that makes small wineries so worthwhile.  When you buy from the established players, you pretty much know what you’re getting ahead of time.  You’ll rarely be very surprised.  In these smaller vineyards, you never really know what you are drinking.  It may even be some varietal thought to be extinct, or one never even catalogued.

For over a century, consumers of Chilean wine labeled “Merlot” were drinking Carmenere without even knowing it.  If you’ve patronized enough small producers, there’s no telling which grapes you may have tried unwittingly.



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