The Cinderella Story of Carmenere

Jun 24, 2009

The Cinderella Story of Carmenere

I crossed roads,
trains carried me
waters brought me,
and in the skin of the grapes
I thought I touched you
- Pablo Neruda “Hands”

Have you ever felt incredibly baffled by the number of wines available in a wine store? Have you ever wondered about all the varieties - how many there are, the percentages that are popular compared to the least popular?

Grapes have their own character depending on the fashions of the time. It is like a high school popularity contest all over again.

Chardonnay has its own love it and hate it crowds (ABC – ‘Anything but Chardonnay…). Chardonnay is the blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader with straight A’s. She’s so perfect you can’t stand her.

Cabernet Sauvignon, known around the world, is the popular class president.

Shiraz is hip and great with summer BBQ. He’s the guy you want at your pool party.

Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the intellectual kids with the edge; Pinot Noir is the art student some people relate to but few understand. And Riesling is the cute German exchange student.

And then there’s Carmenere…


She was once popular but now, who is she? She’s French but she’s mostly Chilean. I call her the Cinderella grape of the wine world. Her story is similar to the high school one about the girl who wasn’t the prom queen, wasn’t really noticed until time and circumstances brought her to light.

In the mid-17th century, the Dutch, were fast experts on retrieving land from the sea. They worked their magic in Bordeaux and, using their drainage technology, transformed the desolate, salt-marsh land of Medoc into an area suitable for grazing livestock.

The ditches the Dutch installed proved so effective that merchants in the region eventually decided to plant the land with vineyards.

Carmenere, then known as Grand Vidure or Vidure, began to appear in the vineyards along with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

In the nineteenth century, the Medoc enjoyed incredible fame and distinction. These Bordeaux wines, then known as Claret, were sought after in Britain. Some of the best properties’ reputations were earned due to the presence of Cabernet Franc and Carmenere.

But there was an aura of tragedy hanging over Carmenere. It was true that the variety was known to produce excellent wine but the vine was susceptible to coulure (French term describing a natural phenomenon in which berries fall off the vine soon after flowering).
The low yields frustrated French vignernons (wine producers) but the grape’s fate was sealed soon after the Phylloxera devastation (the rootstock-feeding aphid discovered in French vineyards in the late 1860’s). While replanting their ruined vineyards, many Bordeaux estates decided to forgo Carmenere feeling it was no longer a necessary part of their wines, and hailed Cabernet Sauvignon as their most important grape.

What would be Carmenere’s fate?

“…Chile lies at the end of all roads…”
- Isabel Allende

“long petal of sea and wine and snow”
- Pablo Neruda

Chile’s wine country has been described as a ‘viticultural heaven’. The central part of the country enjoys a temperate climate with sunny, dry conditions and is often compared with California. There are two major reasons for this: the mountains (Chile is 80% mountainous) and the ocean. Variations in altitude and exposure create variations in local climate. There is also the Humboldt Current (named after Prussian Naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt), a cold Pacific flow moving north-westward up along Chile’s coastline towards Peru.

Winemaking began with the first appearance of the Conquistadors in the 1500s. The Spanish, wanting to make the New World more like home, began to plant vineyards and produce wine. Initially, their first efforts were of poor quality as the wines they produced were made from País, which was identical to the Mission grape planted and used by missionaries in Mexico and California in the 18th century. Both País or Misión grape were used for religious purposes such as the Eucharist. The Catholics then weren’t so much concerned with quality as with ritual, so the bulk of the vineyard was planted with this mediocre variety. With lands to conquer and money to be made, the first wines were anything but fine.

In the 19th century, revolutions in North America and France gave rise to a wave of immigration - of people and vine cuttings. By the 1830s, there was a shift towards planting European vines. In 1851, a decade before Phylloxera began to creep slowly across Europe, Silvestre Ochavia Echazareta and a few associates began to import French varieties. They planted Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling for the whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenere for the reds. (The work of Echazareta would eventually establish the basis of Chile’s modern wine industry.)

With Phylloxera about to hit France, Carmenere had a chance to come into her own in South America. Chile was not only perfect for the grape in terms of soil, climate and weather, but was phylloxera-free. With everything going for her, one would think the grape would take off and shine.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Carmenere became the victim of negligence.

While vineyards died in France Carmenere was no longer a vital part of the Bordeaux-team. She then found herself growing alongside Merlot.

To most growers, they were alike in flavour but little else. They could distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Merlot but Carmenere - maybe the wallflower wasn’t worth the bother.

Merlot’s long history of presiding royally in France, especially on the right bank of Bordeaux where the finest wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol (such as Château Petrus and Le Pin) were made, stood her in good staid. Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon but early flowering also makes her sensitive to coulure (like Carmenere). In France, the wine produced is notably lower in colour, acid and tannin compared to Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines of the Left Bank of the Geronde estuary. She can grow in climates cooler than hot or warm (unlike Cabernet Sauvignon). Merlot can often be lush and plump with notes of chocolate, black fruit and coffee while Carmenere has a deep rich chocolately black fruit component. In Chilean Merlot, there is often an herbaceous and leathery hint.

Carmenere, like Pinot Noir, is a bit feisty. A vigorous vine, she needs deep soils of moderate fertility. Carmenere also demands sun and warmth but a temperate, dry climate, relatively free of late-season rain. In Bordeaux, she was often harvested in November (in the southern hemisphere, late harvest falls in May). If planted in an area too cold, or harvested early, she is far too ‘green’ in flavour. Over-matured or saturated in sun, she becomes flabby. A happy medium is continually needed. The harvest time is crucial as are lower yields (the less grapes on the vine, the more rich the wine), good canopy management (making sure the leaves of the vine keep the berries cool but not shadowed) and site selection. Typical characteristics of a Carmenere wine are: ripe, black fruits, roasted herbs, grilled red pepper and paprika.

Considering what we know of these two grapes, it would appear that Chilean grape growers simply saw the similarities as opposed to the vast differences between the varieties. Peter Richards, in his book, The Wines of Chile explains that growers distinguished Merlot by calling it ‘Merlot Merlot’ and Carménère, ‘Merlot Chileno’. This explains why Carmenere was thrown in the fermentation vat with Merlot and how Chilean Merlot became distinct from Merlot in France and California. Wine consumers and connoisseurs for many years were actually drinking a Merlot that was primarily Carmenere. Talk about being upstaged!

Thankfully, in 1994, after over a hundred years of being a wallflower, Carmenere was able to put on her glass slipper when she was finally identified through DNA testing. Of the 13,000 hectares of Merlot in Chile, 6,000 were actually Carmenere. Something similar happened in Northern Italy. What was once thought to be Cabernet Franc, a variety planted in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, had actually been 4000 hectares of Carmenere. Although the two grapes are similar in view of their importance in Bordeaux, they share a similar vegetal and herbal component. One wonders if this was accidental or not.

In the twenty-first century, Carmenere has become synonymous with Chile the way Malbec is identified with Argentina. The success of the variety in Chile has inspired the French to replant her in Pauillac and St. Émilion.

Because of the way this great grape proved herself in Chile, this wallflower now has the confidence to re-establish pride of place in Bordeaux. With a full dance card, Carmenere can now strut her stuff in future vintages.

Allende, Isabel, My Invented Country. Harper Collins, New York 2003.
Clarke, Oz, Pocket Wine Guide 2006, Harcourt, Orlando Florida, 2005.
Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006.
Stavans, Ilan (ed), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003.
Waldin, Monty, Wines of South America, Mitchell Beazley, London 2003.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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