The story of Carmenère: November’s wine

The warming spice and berry notes of Carmenère couldn’t be more appropriate for a November wine. Not only does it match the autumnal month in style, but Carmenère Day also falls on November 24th. Carmenère Day commemorates the day that Carmenère was first discovered in Chile, and rediscovered in the world, in 1994.

Originally a Bordeaux variety, Carmenere came to Chile’s shores in the mid 1800s with other more popular Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Although when it arrived it was mistakenly labelled as Merlot, and so Chilean winemakers began planting the so-called ‘Merlot’ in their vineyards.

Meanwhile in Europe the phylloxera epidemic was hitting hard, and by the 1870s every plantation of Carmenere was completely wiped out. The variety was presumed extinct.

Little did anyone know, that Carmenere was living a secret life in Chile - and it was thriving. Plantations of this ‘Merlot’ spread all over the country and Chilean winemakers soon began to identify special characteristics of these vines compared to the other, newer Merlot cuttings that were being planted. It earned the nickname ‘Merlot Chileno’.

In 1994, a French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot was visiting the vineyards at Viña Carmen in Maipo and he spotted a curiosity in among the Merlot vines. Much to his surprise, it was a vine he knew to be Carmenere.

And so the mistaken identity of Carmenere was revealed, and all of a sudden Chile had the world’s largest plantings of a variety that was considered extinct. Chilean winemakers have been making Carmenere for centuries, but it is only in the last 20 years that they have been able to perfect their winemaking now that the variety was correctly identified.

The reputation of Chile’s Carmenere has given the variety a new lease of life around the world and seen new plantings of Carmenere in the US, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, France and in Italy (where it was actually mistaken for Cabernet Franc!)

While we celebrate the international success of Carmenere on Carmenere Day too, it is in Chile where you can find the greatest diversity of Carmenere. From the spicy Carmenere found in the coastal regions, through to plush and rich Carmenere in the Central Valley, down to the bright fruits of Maule’s Carmenere.

The versatility of Carmenere with its medium tannins and good acidity makes it very food friendly. It pairs well with a range of dishes from more complex preparations like richly spiced curries and aromatic barbecued lamb, through to lighter dishes including stuffed peppers and roast turkey (perfect for Thanksgiving!)

Whatever your menu, November is the perfect excuse to drink Carmenere!

Written by Amanda Barnes