With proper treatment of the grape comes a better understanding of its inherent strengths as its true character can finally come out.
Cristobal Undurraga is making some of Chile's best carmenère
At its best the carmenère grape displays some of the best characteristics of its Bordelais origins: the plummy richness and spice of merlot and the cedary, savoury character of cabernet franc. We are already starting to see distinct styles emerging though, depending on where the grape is grown, offering the winemaker a rich palette to play with.
Carmenère can often also produce a rich and opulent wine with a hint of black pepper. It is planted in predominantly warm areas like Maule or the Rapel Valley where, if left to ripen fully, it can make a full-on style of wine akin to a ripe, turbo-charged style of merlot. At the more everyday level (like Lascar or Viña Santico) it gives a lot of flavour for the price. As one works one's way up the hierarchy, with lower yields carmenère can become very ripe and almost jammy.
I think Cristobal Undurraga at Viña Koyle is making some of Chile's best carmenère from cool, hillside vineyards of about 400-500m at Los Lingues, in the warm Colchagua Valley. Here the grape ripens but is not jammy, it remains fresh and exhibits some spicy notes such as clove. He produces the lovely Koyle Reserva and I asked him to make our new Exhibition Colchagua Carmenère.
The beautiful native koyle flower gives its name to Cristobal's venture in the Colchagua Valley
Cristobal Undurraga has planted at altitude to benefit from the cooling currents of air coming down from the Andes
Encouraging a rich biodiversity within the vineyards is indicative of Cristobal's approach of working with nature to get the best out of his vines
Too much of a good thing
Top wines produced from very low yields of 100% carmenère can be too much of a good thing. When very ripe it needs the backbone of the firmer cabernet sauvignon, or perhaps carignan, to balance its richness.
The blessing of blends
Carmenère works well in a blend. Koyle's wonderful Cuartel G2 is a hillside block of low- yielding carmenère with a little cabernet franc which has a decidedly Bordeaux-like feel to it. Here poor soil rather than extreme heat is responsible for the impressive concentration. I reported on tasting this for the first time in last year's Travels in Wine write up.
Neyen, from the warm Apalta vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, is a superb blend of 55% fleshy carmenère planted in the 1950s supported with 45% of grippy cabernet sauvignon from the 1890s. It's a real blockbuster of a wine that will last for years (the 2013 will keep to 2036 I reckon!)
Almaviva, the prestigious wine produced by the partnership between Concha y Toro and Baron Philip de Rothschild SA (Château Mouton-Rothschild), is a Bordeaux blend made predominantly from 65-70% cabernet sauvignon with about 20-25 % carmenère, and a small seasoning of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. It comes from Concha y Toro's best vineyards in Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley and has Mouton's winemaker Patrick Leon behind it, so perhaps not surprisingly, some are calling it Chile's first equivalent to a Bordeaux grand cru classé. It has certainly become one of Chile's most famous wines, making it a little pricey for our liking, though we have listed it in the past.
Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux
Coming full circle – carmenère comes 'home'
Following the effects of global warming some Bordelais are taking a fresh look at carmenère. Henri Lurton, for example, planted 0.5ha of the grape in 2007 at his Château Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux, on the warm gravelly soils of Margaux. So far it represents just 0.5% of the château's vineyard area, nevertheless there is 1% blended into the wine in the warm 2015 vintage. We are likely to see more planted in Bordeaux in the years to come.