It has taken the Chileans time to get to understand this grape, indeed even to identify it properly in the first place. Toby Morrhall tells us what's been learnt.
Carmenère's identity is only just coming into focus. Once confused with the early ripening merlot, carmenère used to be picked unripe and made grassy, green (bell) pepper-scented wines with hard tannins which aged badly. Once it was known that it was in fact carmenère, a Bordelais variety that fell out of fashion, which matures a month after merlot, it was picked too ripe. This produced jammy wines which were so unbalanced (overly high alcohol and insufficient acidity) that they also did not mature gracefully in bottle.
Carmenère: the happy medium & the way forward
Extremes are rarely a good idea, especially when it comes to wine. Now carmenère is being picked ripe but not too ripe and is beginning to find its identity making wines that are lower in alcohol and easier to drink.
A few years ago I was lucky to be present when De Martino opened a number of wines from the 1980s made from carmenère. They were picked neither green nor jammy and have developed well in bottle showing a lovely aromatic complexity that can resemble a mature Saint-Emilion , with an amalgam of a attributes of merlot, a round, plummy, medium to full bodied palate and spicy aromas, and cedary cabernet franc. These wines show the way forward.
The origins of carmenère
Carmenère is a grape variety of the carmenet family and is closely related to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. It ripens up to a month after merlot and suffers from poor fruit set. When phylloxera hit Bordeaux in the 1870s and devastated the vineyards it was not replanted. However the intrepid Chilean grape variety hunters had been in Bordeaux in the 1850s before phylloxera and taken back cuttings of many Bordeaux varieties, including carmenère. In 2008 Chile had 7,054 hectares planted while France had barely 21.
Transplanted to the warmer Chilean climate where there is usually little or, at least, very few autumn rains, carmenère can be left to successfully ripen before harvest, whereas rain would have caused the crop to rot before it matured in Bordeaux. Naturally, wanting the leaves to function and ripen the fruit, Chileans have been guilty of recently giving the vines too much water.
In warmer climates where there is less rain, carmenère can be left on the vine to fully ripen before harvest
As many fruit gardeners know, if you give plants too much fertiliser and water, the plant keeps growing and doesn't ripen its fruit. The plant's growing and ripening phases are controlled by its hormones. Usually, shorter day length and a mild water deficit, brought on by the hotter summer months, trigger hormones that signal to the plant that autumn is on the way and it's time to divert the sugars from the growing tip to the fruit. In the vine it also produces a sudden and dramatic colouration of the berries (véraison). Stems start to lignify (become more woody) and leaves gradually start turning from green to a very deep red in the case of carmenère.
Achieving more balance
Chilean growers now give carmenère much less water and nitrogen during and after summer. This allows ripening to occur earlier and with a greater degree of tannin and colour maturity but with lower levels of sugars and therefore alcohols. In the past carmenères were regularly harvested at 15% alc and over. Now, 13.5-14% is more the norm. Some leaves are plucked to allow enough sunlight on the clusters which also promotes ripeness.
So that's the technical explanation of what's been happening in the vineyards, but it doesn't end there and winemakers too have changed the way they treat the grape.