Chile’s signature grape, Carmenère (sometimes spelled carménère or carmenere), is the “lost grape of Bordeaux.”
The Carmenère grape is member of the Cabernet family of grapes and was widely planted in Bordeaux before phylloxera devastated European vineyards in the late 1800s. It was known to be a difficult grape to grow in Bordeaux, since it needed more heat to ripen than other Bordeaux grapes and was prone to catch coulure, a disease that caused the grapes to drop before they were ripe for harvest.
Despite its repute for producing excellent wine, because it was so low yielding, it was not replanted in any significant quantities in Bordeaux after phylloxera.
Fast-forward to the early 1990s when French scientists visiting Chile were curious about the appearance and character of Chilean Merlot. Further studies revealed that in fact much of the Merlot planted in Chile was actually Carmenère, originating most likely from cuttings brought over in the mid-19th century. In 1998 the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognised Carmenère as a distinct variety.
Chile’s warm climate, long growing season, and fertile soils are ideal for this unique grape and it has adapted well in the 150 years since its replanting. It is typically harvested several weeks later than Merlot, and the range of its flavour and versatility is suddenly being appreciated.
Once only blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it is now enjoying an existence of its own, with a wide range of flavours, from green pepper to blackberry to chocolate, and textures that are entirely distinctive from one vineyard to the next