Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Your Mission: Drink More Carmenère

By Amanda Schuster

Carmenère is somewhat of a special secret double agent of wines. It has lived different lives during the course of centuries, transcending continents. It's an Old World varietal that reinvented itself by hiding out in the New World until it caught on.

The story begins in Spain and Portugal, then France, with what is thought to be its great grandparent, none other than that famous powerhouse varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon. "Vidure" is a lesser-known synonym for Cabernet, and Carmenère also sometimes goes by the alias "grand vidure". (Check for that next time you're looking for it under a hotel guest registry. Shhhh!) It was once widely planted in Bordeaux's Medoc, lending its deep color and unique gaminess to the structure of the classic blends of the region. But then, phylloxera happened. Once that devastating vine affliction hit Bordeaux, wiping out most of the vineyards for several years, Carmenère became all but extinct. After all, it's a needy grape - requiring a lot of sunlight to grow, and precise pruning and observation to maintain. So once the "cure" was discovered and widespread re-grafting of vines took place, France was faced with the decision whether to replant Carmenère. They decided "non" in favor of less difficult and more popular varietals.

The story could have ended there.

Cut to: Chile, 19th century. Before phylloxera struck, many Vitis vinifera vines were exported to vineyards in that part of South America, which somehow escaped the devastation that the rest of the world had suffered. Carmenère was among the grapes planted, but because the varietal shares many of the same characteristics with Merlot, and because many of the vine cuttings were not labeled, it successfully went incognito for many years. However, wine experts began to notice distinctions between what was most definitely Merlot and other wines which were merely using Merlot's identity. Merlot that was the same… but different.


In 1994, French oenologist Jean Michel Boursiquo, decided to run DNA tests on this so-called "different Merlot". He arrived at the astonishing conclusion that Carmenère - yes, the very same species now all but extinct in France - had been happily thriving in the sunshine of Chile this whole time! Since this discovery, Carmenère was embraced as Chile's signature varietal, and now enjoys success in other parts of the New World as a favorite go-to value wine. It can be found in Australia, New Zealand, California and Washington, and has also re-gained popularity in Europe in Spanish and Portuguese blends.

Carmenère is best characterized as plush, rich and dry, with soft tannins and fruit flavors of blackberry, blueberry and dark cherry. Some versions of it possess pleasant herbal notes of sage, mint and rosemary, finishing with dark chocolate, espresso and/or tobacco. It's a natural sidekick for red meats, pairing beautifully with burgers and steaks, as well as rich cheeses. Some of its stunt-pairing capabilities allow it to match stews and sauces with bell peppers, and even spicy fare such as chilis and burritos. It's even delicious served with a slight chill in warmer weather.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.

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