Carménère is to Chile what Malbec is to Argentina: an emblematic red variety that originated in Europe, but has since become synonymous with the South American country that is the largest producer worldwide. Carménère is a wine grape variety that is originally from Bordeaux, France; however, in the late 19th century, a phylloxera infestation all but wiped out the vines to near extinction. It was in 1990s Chile that some vines, long-mistaken for Merlot, turned out to be Carménère and the grape has since become a signature variety of Chilean wine. Carménère produces a deep-red wine with a range of flavours, including black cherry, blackberry, tobacco, and green pepper, that is typically medium to full-bodied with moderate acidity and tannins. This grape has unique characteristics which, when coupled with the Chilean terroir, has helped to differentiate it from other red wines produced in that country.
Carménère has become increasingly popular in recent years with Chile being the leading global producer of the grape. Recommended food pairings are bold, spicy foods, as well as hearty meats like beef and lamb, for a wine that is usually aged in oak barrels which can add flavours of vanilla and toast. Carménère is well-suited to the Mediterranean-like climate of Chile, where it thrives in the warm, dry conditions of the Central Valley region. It is often blended with other red grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, to add complexity and balance. This grape is widely grown in the Chilean regions of Maipo, Colchagua, and Cachapoal, areas well-known for producing some of the best Carménère wines in that country.
While Carménère is primarily associated with Chile, there are some vineyards in Argentina that also grow these grapes. However, they are not as widely grown or recognised in Argentina as they are in Chile. In fact, my own introduction to this varietal was thanks to Arlenes Garcia, Latin American sales & marketing director at Unique Vacations Incorporated, global representatives of Sandals and Beaches Resorts, who gifted this writer with the sublime 90-point Santa Ema Select Terroir Reserve Carménère following her most recent visit to Chile. Carménère was first introduced to Argentina in the 19th century, but was largely abandoned in favour of other grape varieties that were thriving at that time. It was two centuries later, in the early 2000s, that winemakers in Argentina started to take a renewed interest in Carménère and began planting it again in small quantities. Today, it is mostly grown in the Mendoza region of Argentina, an already well-established GI globally renowned for producing high-quality red wines. Here, the grape thrives in the warm, sunny climate and produces wines with similar characteristics to those produced in Chile — medium to full-bodied with flavours of dark fruit, spice, and chocolate. It also produces wines that are strikingly different from its Chilean counterpart, whose wines tend to be spicier and with smoky aromas. Instead, the Argentine version has aromas of red fruits, cherry, strawberry, a difference that is typical of all grape varieties grown in different terroirs.
Despite its resurgence over two decades ago, however, when compared to Chile, the production of Carménère in Argentina remains relatively small and it has yet to be recognised as a signature grape of the country. Notwithstanding its boutique production, some wineries in Argentina are making excellent wines from this grape that, if given the chance, can be an interesting alternative to the more established red wine varieties produced in the country. Today Thursday Food introduces a Carménère from Chile and four of its Argentine counterparts:
Santa Ema Select Terroir Reserve Carménère is produced by Bodega Santa Ema from select grapes at vineyards located in the Cachapoal Valley, a wine-producing region located in the central part of Chile, about 60 miles (100 km) south of Santiago. The wine, made of 100 per cent Carménère grape, has a dark red colour with violet hues and expresses aromas reminiscent of black fruits such as blackberries, blueberries and black plums as well as hints of tobacco and black pepper. On the palate, it is soft, velvety, with ripe tannins, moderate acidity and a pleasant finish. The Select Terroir Reserva line by Santa Ema has a great fruity expression in its reds and fresh whites, giving each of its varieties an unmistakable seal of typicity and purity that allows it to stand out among its peers. The seven varietals in this line include the featured Carménère along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Moscatel de Alejandria, Rosé and Sauvignon Blanc.
Aguma Carménère is a 100 per cent Carménère produced from vineyards in the Tulum Valley area of San Juan by Bodega Aguma, making it the first time this grape has been produced in this winemaking region. The wine has a very striking, deep purplish red colour with an aroma of spices, humid earth and red fruits. On the palate it presents itself with very soft, pleasant and friendly tannins resulting in a fresh 'vino tinto', that is very easy to drink. It does not pass through wood and is not a wine to be kept but rather to be enjoyed while young.
Viniterra Carménère is the first of three varietals, featuring this grape, that is produced by Bodega Viniterra from vineyards in Lujan De Cuyo, Mendoza. Fermented for 12 months in French and American oak barrels, along with a minimum of six months in the bottle, this Carménère presents a very good typicity of this varietal. With a 14 per cent alcoholic volume, the wine has a purplish red colour with lively brilliance and medium depth. On the nose are aromas of black fruits in the foreground such as cassis and blueberries, followed by characteristic balsamic and herbal traces of the strain. In the mouth, it is succulent and unctuous with clear fruit flavours and very good acidity. In the middle of the mouth it is broad and juicy as it floods the palate and ensures a long finish with round tannins and a pleasant texture. Its aftertaste is reminiscent of forest fruits and spices.
Viniterra Select Carménère is a slightly more elaborate version of this grape by the bodega that features a more complex wine, both in its aromas and in its flavour. The wine is dark reddish-purple in colour, it offers multiple aromas, from fresh notes and spices typical of its variety, to dried fruits, as a result of its prolonged aging in oak. It also expresses a high ripeness with some balsamic notes, mint and crème de cassis. On the palate it is medium-bodied, peppery and spicy with liquorice notes, sweet berries and a rounded finish.
Viniterra Select Malbec-Carménère is a bi-varietal that proposes uniting the best of both sides of the Andes mountain range and comprises 50 per cent Malbec and 50 per cent Carménère, combining the acidity of Carménère with the tannins of the Malbec. Dark red, with intense violet hues, it is spicy on the nose with mineral and tobacco notes, reminiscent of mature red fruits. It also expresses an elegant aroma of nuts due to its long aging period in oak barrels. In mouth, it is straight and juicy, evidencing the typical balanced acidity of the Carménère variety. Vibrant flavours are excellently displayed in the centre of the mouth with sweet and round tannins, distinctive of a well-matured Malbec variety. The combination of these two varietals results in a highly complex yet opulent wine.
Here, in the land of Malbec, the Carménère seems to be arousing the interest of the country's wine lovers. In the years to come, vintners will no doubt continue to innovate as they seek to excite the palates of vinophiles everywhere.
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