The Flavors of Carménère: History, Taste & Grape Growing Regions
Originally planted in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, France, as a blending wine, Carménère is now more associated with Chile as a standalone varietal.
Carménère was one of the original six grapes of Bordeaux, but due to disease pressure in the 19th century, the vines were almost completely wiped out; for a period it was thought to be extinct as new vines couldn’t be found to replace those that had died. However, other regions adopted the grape and it now thrives outside of France in hotter climates.
The Tasting Notes of Carménère
Carménère is known for its bell pepper and vegetable notes. This pyrazine-heavy wine can have flavors ranging from tart fresh flavors like raspberry, gooseberry, jalapeno and green bell pepper to richer notes like plum, juniper berry, eucalyptus and cocoa. It has traditionally been used as a blending grape, adding unique notes of smoke, herbs, red berries and rich intense color to blends. However, it has become increasingly appreciated as a standalone grape.
Wine Growing Regions for Carménère
Despite being native to France, the grape is not really grown there anymore and until recently was thought to be extinct. Given its warm, long summers, the most well known region for Carménère currently is Chile.
In the mid-1800s, Carménère was brought to Chile, and was mistakenly planted in the region as Merlot. It wasn’t until 1998 that it was discovered that nearly 50% of the “Merlot” in Chile was actually Carménère. Now, it is recognized as a unique varietal and is the signature grape of the country.
A similar situation happened in Italy. In the 1990s, a producer thought they were importing Cabernet Franc to their vineyards, but it turned out to be Carménère. The grape has also been found in small quantities in California, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, and Virginia.
Carménère Wines to Try
- De Martino Single Vineyard Carmenere Alto di Piedras is a fantastic option if you’re looking to see the full potential of Chilean Carménère. The spicy and green notes are balanced out by intense fruit.
- Another classic but more affordable option is the Carmenère Reserva from Caliterra, Colchagua Valley. It has all the same intense flavors, though tends more towards the rich cocoa and dark berries.
- For a Washington interpretation, try the Drink Washington State ‘Wahluke Slope’ Carménère. It’s a richly intense wine with notes of dark fruit, chocolate and the classic green bell pepper tartness. This is a fun wine to compare against its Chilean counterparts.
- If you’re exploring the grape, you need to try and find one from Virginia. Casanel Vineyards & Winery’s 2016 Estate Carménère was awarded “Best of Class” in 2019 at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and has unique notes of violet and plum.