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The grape that France forgot now thrives in Chile

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004

When it comes to consumer acceptance of wines, the name of the grape is important.

Merlot is a good example. It generally is quite fruity and, when well made, delivers good depth of flavor and adequate structure. In addition, consumers can easily pronounce the name -- merlot can be requested with ease and confidence.

Then there is the carménère grape. It is capable of producing juicy, fruity red wines similar to high-quality merlots. For many years, carménère (pronounced car-men-EHR ) wines from Chile mistakenly were thought to be made from merlot grapes. In 1994, however, the French ampelographist Jean Michel Bourisiquot unraveled the confusion.

Ampelography is the study and classification of grape varieties.

Carménère is a member of the cabernet/merlot family. The grape's name refers to the deep crimson color of its skins and the hue of the vine's leaves in late autumn.

The carménère saga began in the 1850s, when it was first planted in Chile. The grape cuttings came from Bordeaux, France.

For years in France, carmenet was harvested en masse with other traditional Bordelaise grapes, such as cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petite verdot. The combination created magnificent red blends that to this day dazzle wine lovers worldwide.

Over the decades, however, carménère vines were grubbed out in Bordeaux because the climate and soils were just not right for the variety. Today, carménère is all but forgotten in France.

In Chile, however, carménère has found a home. The combination of soil and climate, plus Chile's unique immunity to the heartless root louse called phylloxera, has allowed carménère to flourish.

At first, the grape was harvested in Chile along with cabernet sauvignon and the other familiar Bordeaux varieties -- winemakers did not think to market it separately.

The picture changed when Bourisiquot completed his grape sleuthing. Since then, the winemakers at Chile's premier winery, Concha y Toro, and other wineries have recognized carménère's potential as the nation's signature grape.

The results have been impressive. Concha y Toro and its affiliated brands offer a full range of carménère wines.

Other wineries have followed suit to provide consumers with a nice range of choices. Because carménère is not as well known as merlot, there is less demand for it, meaning better prices for consumers.

A fun way to discover carmenere is to taste it blind with your favorite merlot. You might find the results pleasantly surprising.

Start with the following:

  • 2003 Frontera Carménère, Valle Central, Chile (9060, 1.5 liters; on sale $7.99): The wine offers straightforward, fruity aromas of plums with a bit of spice leading to fruity, lip-smacking plum flavors with a hint of bell pepper in a light texture through a soft, fruity finish. It's a great value for holiday parties. Highly recommended.

  • 2002 Casa Julia Carménère, Maipo Valley, Chile (Specialty 28855, $8.99): The wine opens with pleasant plum and spice aromas followed by pure, fruity flavors of plums with chocolate accents layered in a medium body with well-balanced tannins. Try it with Italian sweet sausage in a red sauce with peppers. Recommended.

  • 2003 Casillero del Diablo Carménère, Rapel Valley, Chile (4051, on sale $8.99): This blend of 85 percent carmenere, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent syrah has a dark purple color and enticing, fruity aromas of plums, blackberries and hints of mocha followed by lush fruity flavors of ripe plums, spices and chocolate nuances from American oak barrel aging. It has a medium body, soft tannins and a pleasant, fruity finish. Recommended.

  • 2002 Terrunyo Carménère, Cachapoal Valley, Chile (Specialty 28613, $22.99): A blend of 85 percent carmenere, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent merlot, this deep purple wine opens to concentrated aromas of plums and spicy nuances from French oak barrel aging to highlight intense flavors of plums and currants with chocolate hints. The wine is framed with silky tannins and a big, full flavored fruity finish. Recommended.

    Best buy

    Thanks to the Chairman's Selection program of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, consumers have a great price on a classy bubbly:

    1997 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Le Rêve Brut, Carneros, Calif. (On sale in specialty stores, $29.99): This ultra-elegant California sparkling wine has the élan of true Champagne with a classy California style all its own. The beads of bubbles are very fine and persistent, and the aromas of citrus and apples accented by toasty yeast smells lead to refined, creamy flavors of citrus and baked apples balanced with refreshing acidity through a frothy, elegant finish. Buy this little gem in quantity while it lasts. Highly recommended.

    Additional Information:

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