Carménère is a dark-skinned grape variety originally from the vineyards of Bordeaux, and which has found a particularly suitable home in Chile. The first accent is omitted in some countries, including Chile, both are in others.
A late ripening variety, Carménère needs high levels of sunshine and a warm summer to reach its full potential, but in the right environment it can produce fine, deeply colored red wines, with the attractive meaty plumpness of Merlot and the gently herbaceous, cedary notes of Cabernet Sauvignon.
These similarities are not altogether surprising. DNA studies have shown that Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot all have Cabernet Franc as a parent.
DNA profiling published in 2013 puts forward the obscure French variety Murál as the second parent of Carménère. A previous (2009) study had proposed Gros Cabernet.
- Cabernet Sauvignon = Cabernet Franc x Sauvignon Blanc
- Merlot = Cabernet Franc x Magdeleine Noire des Charentes
Neither Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot gained much momentum in the region until the mid 18th Century. Carménère was much more important, particularly in the Médoc. Here it had a longstanding and successful partnership with its parent Cabernet Franc and where it was one of the most widely planted varieties throughout that region.
This remained the case up until the 1860s, when the phylloxera louse (to which Carménère vines are particularly susceptible) arrived in Europe from the Americas. Carménère doesn't respond as well to grafting as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, so the variety was largely abandoned when phylloxera resistant American rootstocks were introduced.
Prior to this, in pre-phylloxera 19th Century Bordeaux, enterprising Chilean vignerons had taken cuttings from the region's vineyards. However, a high proportion of what they believed to be Merlot, a grape variety in the early days of its fame, turned out to be the similar looking Carménère.
Though long established, the variety's popularity had waned considerably. This unconscious mistake probably saved Carménère from extinction. It is now Chile's flagship USP grape.
The leaves of Merlot and Carménère vines are so alike that the error was not uncovered until 1994, after DNA research was conducted in Montpellier. (A search for Chilean Carmenère on Wine-Searcher will confirm just how rapidly the variety has taken off since its "discovery".)
Chile has capitalized on its status as the savior of the grape variety and has incorporated the vine's memorable story into its famously efficient wine marketing. Montes' Purple Angel, Concha y Toro's Carmin de Peumo, and the Vina Errazuriz Kai are all examples of prestige wines, all competing for the status of Chile's first iconic Carmenère.
As news of Carménère's success in Chile has spread, the vine has been taken up as a curiosity in several regions around the world. The variety has also reached New Zealand, where Ransom Wines discovered it in their Matakana vineyards, masquerading as a clone of Cabernet Franc.
It arrived there from northern Italy – the Eastern Veneto and Friuli are the principal Italian locations for the variety. It is also blended with other varieties, such as Refosco. Northern Italy has a history of confusing the two varieties, often in wines labeled "Cabernet". This meant that Carménère only began to get officially recognized in IGT and DOC wines in the late 2000s.
The fault for the misidentification of the two varieties has to be at least shared with France. For example, top Lombardy estate Ca'del Bosco purchased Cabernet Franc cuttings from a French nursery in 1990, only to notice the grapes ripened earlier than typical Cabernet Franc, and tasted and looked different. The cuttings were shown to be Carménère, and now produce a wine called Carmenero.
Conversely, as the Chilean examples gained in popularity, more north Italian Carménères began to appear. Some of these turned out to be incorrectly identified.
Tuscany's Predicato dui Biturica may also be identical. According to Pliny the Elder this ancient variety, known then as Biturica originated in Iberia.
Back in its erstwhile home in Bordeaux, Carménère vines are still grown in a small number of estates including Haut-Bailly, Brane-Cantenac and Clerc-Milon, and Chateaux Claribes and Le Puy further east in Sainte Foy and Francs respectively. Whether plantings will increase in response to the variety's Chilean successes will become clear over the next decade or so.
Vines from Changyu Estate in Ningxia wine region have been DNA tested by Swiss scientist and author José Vouillamoz and found to be Carménère. This has been backed up by some further tests by other teams. However other studies suggest some Cabernet Gernischt plantings may be be Cabernet Franc.
The latter is the variety that Cabernet Gernischt was historically likened to - it was always considered a European vine even if its arrival in China was unclear. On the other hand the Chinese variety often shows green pepper and gamey characteristics which suggest Carménère.
The name Gernischt is thought to be a corruption of "gemischt", German for mixed, and therefore referred to a consignment of "mixed Cabernet" cuttings. This would explain the planting in China of both Cabernet Franc and Carmenère under the Gernischt name.
Synonyms for Carménère include: Grand Vidure.
Food matches for Carménère include:
- Sausage and bean stew
- Creamy lamb curry
- Barbecued lamb chops