Growing carmenère

Due to an administrative error, carmenère was previously mistaken for merlot Due to an administrative error, carmenère was previously mistaken for merlot

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.

De Martino

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 In warmer climates where there is less rain, carmenère can be left on the vine to fully ripen before harvest

Ripening triggers

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.

More from this trip

Trip homepage >

Other recent buyer trips

Germany Revisited

Germany 2016

Germany Revisited

Marcel Orford-Williams reflects on how history has shaped the German wine scene and on the how it has changed over the last decade.

View full trip
Travels In Wine - Piedmont 2015

Piedmont 2015

Perfect Piedmont

Protected by the Alps to the north and west and the Appennines to the south, Italy's north west is one of the wine world's most exciting regions. Paul and Janet try to get to grips with the Langhe, map Barolo, understand Barbaresco and round-up the latest Barolo vintages

View full trip
Cape Expectations

South Africa 2016: Part 2

The Cape in a new light

A new generation has brought a new energy to the Cape's winelands, making this not just one of the most beautiful regions to visit, but also one of the most exciting.

View full trip
Browse all >

Members' Comments (0)

There are no comments for this article.

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.


4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies: Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.