Carmenere: The Great Lost Grape of Bordeaux Gets A Troubled Chilean Makeover

Vinted on November 2, 2009 binned in wine industry events

This week just might mark a seminal event in my personal wine journey.  Either that, or a huge, disappointing wine bust served up on a bed of bell pepper and pine needles.

On November 4th, I’ll be taking part with a small group of bloggers in an on-line tasting event with Wines of Chile, the theme of which is “Discover Carmenere: The Lost Grape.”  Why is this a boom-or-bust wine moment for me?  Because I have what I would call a troubled relationship with Carmenere.

Of course, I love the idea of this grape, the story of Carmenere – it’s the stuff of which wine legends are made.

Carmenere was born in Bordeaux, and thought to be extinct after outbreaks of oidium and then the Phylloxera epidemic in the 1800s, which wiped out a good portion of the wine grape vineyards of Europe.  Though widely thought to be able to help produce high quality wines, Carmenere was pretty much abandoned in France in favor of varieties that were less susceptible to disease, ripened more consistently and produced better yields.  But, Carmenere was not dead – plantings were transported, from France to South America, along with vineyard workers looking for more gainful employment at the time (just prior to the Phylloxera outbreak).  For almost one hundred years, the vine thrived in Chile and was thought to be Merlot; it was discovered to in the mid 1990s to actually be the ‘lost grape’ – Carmenere.

So now we have a legendary Bordeaux grape long considered extinct, thriving in the New Wine World and growing on its own, ungrafted rootstock.  The modern wine Coelacanth.  The Grape from The Land of The Lost (Sleestaks sold separately).

So what’s the trouble?  Well, in my experience, the tale spun about the lost grape Carmenere is a lot more compelling than the wine that Carmenere is actually producing…

France’s reaction to Chile’s success with Carmenere seems to be “So what – they can have it.”  At least, they don’t seem to be joining the Carmenere new renaissance taking place in Chile and California.  One reason for France’s lack of involvement in the Carmenere love-fest might be the dearth of current examples in the current marketplace of the excellent wines that the cultivar is supposed to be capable of producing.

It’s not that I haven’t had very good Carmenere.  I have – case in point being a recent sample I received from Errazuriz (2007 Don Maximiano Single Vineyard Carmenere from the Aconcagua Valley, whose picture graces this post).  At its best, I’ve found Carmenere to produce dark-cherry, cassis-filled lush wines with heavy fruit, interesting spice, and a sizeable booze backbone to go with it all.  The big trouble for me is that all of that goodness can be overwhelmed by the green pepper and pine needle aromas that are the hallmark of the compound pyrazine, to which South American Carmenere seems particularly susceptible.

Pyrazine is potent stuff.  Think bell pepper – it doesn’t take a lot to go a long, looooooong way.  I love when there are extremely small amounts of the stuff in red wine – just enough to make things interesting.  The big trouble is that the line between “interesting” and “ruined” is a fine, fine one indeed when it comes to pyrazine in wine – and when it competes head-to-head with opulent dark fruit flavors and aromas, it becomes at best an acquired taste (and at worst makes you feel as though someone shoved a pine cone into your glass of Cabernet).

The flavor combination can be intrusive.  Look at it this way – if you were having a business lunch with someone you didn’t know, and that person showed up well-groomed and prepared but decked-out in a bright green suit with pine needles sticking out of it, you’d be totally distracted.  It wouldn’t matter how well this guy had his sh*t together, you probably wouldn’t catch half of what he was trying to tell you.  The entire you’d be thinking, “WTF is up with this guy’s suit?!??”  That’s how modern Carmenere presents itself to me.

I’m considering this week’s Wines of Chile event to be significant for me personally – if some of the best QPR Carmenere wines of Chile will be on display, then I’m gong to be judging just how much ground is being won in the South American battle to control pyrazine.  Will it be a victory for dark, cassis goodness? Or will we get KO’d by a giant Bell Pepper?

Stay tuned…






  • @winesofarg

    Hi Joe, very interesting piece!!!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks – I'm looking forward to seeing (and tasting) what's on offer this week!

  • Richard

    Good post Joe, but how much for the Sleestaks? I am completely out of those.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks. If you have to ask, then you probably can't afford the Sleestaks…

  • winebratsf

    I am with you with the troubled relationship. I have never really enjoyed carmenere , so I am interested in doing a tasting of a bunch side by side.

    Should be an interesting outcome!

    • 1WineDude

      Are you part of the tasting this week? If not, would love to compare notes if you taste a few side by side!

      • winebratsf

        Yes I have a coffin of wine at home, but i still want to compare notes ;-)

        • 1WineDude

          Ha! Hey, at this point, I'm after all the potential wine storage I can get my hands on!

          • winebratsf

            lol indeed. Well considering there is just me and 8 bottles of wine, it should be an INTERESTING evening. *hiccup*

            • 1WineDude

              It's a date!

  • TheRideInside

    I wish i was able to obtain a larger variety of wines in Florence. They hardly do any importing at all here. Cant wait till i get back to NJ to get involved in these Twitter Tastings. Any Tuscan Twitter Tastings in the works? If not lets get one goin!

    • 1winedude5036

      Great, great idea. Shoot me an email at joe AT 1winedude DOT com and we can trhow some ideas around for a Tuscan tasting.

  • boris

    I've got to agree. And I've tasted lots of Carmenere. Off all the Chilean wines, its my least favorite to do reviews on. Really hit or miss…though when its a hit…it can be pretty nice.


    • 1winedude5036

      Thanks, Boris – here's hoping we get more hits than misses this week!

  • Steve Raye

    When I asked the folks at Santa Carolina to define Carmenere in simple terms for non wine geeks, Magdalena Sosa, their PR guru said she likens it to a "muscular man in silky pajamas."

    • 1WineDude

      Whoa – that is *sooooo* good!

    • Wine Harlots

      A "muscular man in silky pajamas"?
      If that's the case, the Wine Harlots will be cozying up to Señor Carménère straight away!

      • 1WineDude

        So it's gonna be *that* kind of party, eh?

        • Wine Harlots

          You might try to elevate the discourse, but I'll bring it right back to the gutter.
          Once a wine harlot, always a wine harlot.

  • indievintner


    I have lived in Chile for 15 years, that is to say BC and AC. I would have agreed 5+ years ago with what you are saying about the nasty P word. Last few years have been markedly different. I'd ask who has been choosing your wines? Sounds like some bum steers to me.

    Whilst I realise this is all in the light of Wines of Chile tasting, isn't it a rather broad brush to include an entire country in one lot? Haps if you take it by valley (Colchagua might be a good start, but not necessarily the only good start.) They don't make very good pinot in the languedoc afterall. As per your questioning of why France isn't making 'Carm' it is because any climate that must chapetalise with sugar has no business making Carmenere. (ie California connection) Why did it work centuries ago as one of the six grapes of Claret ? — the fruit grew on its own ungrafted roots might have helped. It still grows on natural roots in Chile.

    cheers great blog BYB

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks! I appreciate the great perspective you're offering here.

      I do agree there is the possibility of broad-brush-action here, and I'm placing some faith in Wines of Chile that they are going to bring some of the best examples of Carm. into the tasting tonight. Shy of a trip to South America, it's the best introduction that I (and a few other bloggers in the tasting) will have for the time being.


  • Margaret

    Indievintner is right on the money with this one… The earliest Carmenere's had high pyrazine levels because they were vinifying it like Merlot… but Carmenere ripens a good month later and when left to hang, it loses the green and develops the lush fruit and rich spice (black pepper is the most common)…
    Should be a great tasting tonight and I'm looking forward to your comments!

  • Dylan

    Joe, your post got me thinking about something. Do you believe every varietal has the potential to be great? Is there such a thing as a varietal incapable of creating great wine?

    • 1WineDude

      Great question – probably fodder for an entire post, actually. I used to think that some varieties had limits, but then I had those in the hands of great winemakers and they made captivating wines…

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