Back in 1994, the Chilean wine industry solved a case of mistaken identity when a significant proportion of vines believed to be merlot were recognized as an old Bordeaux grape variety called carménère. About 3,500 out of 10,000 hectares of vines had been identified as a type of merlot despite behaving differently in the field: carménère grapes ripen three weeks later than merlot and the vine’s leaves turn a distinctive crimson red in the fall. The confusion dates to around 1850 when carménère was introduced to Chilean vineyards with other cultivated varieties from Bordeaux, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc.
Fewer than 10 hectares (25 acres) of the variety remained in Bordeaux’s Médoc region when the discovery was made. Chilean winemakers embraced carménère as a unique selling opportunity, akin to malbec in Argentina or zinfandel in California, and plantings surged across the country, hitting a record high 13,750 hectares in 2014. The variety moved from overlooked novelty to Chile’s signature variety.
Like cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, red wines made with carménère can have a strong pyrazine-accented flavour. Underripe grapes offer intense jalapeno, tomato leaf or artichoke flavours. Winemakers looked for a balance between juicy blackcurrant and berry fruit and subtle herbal flavours. Challenges growing the late-ripening carménère is a major reason vintners in Bordeaux didn’t replant the variety following the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out the vineyards between 1860 and 1880.
Carménère Day is celebrated Nov. 24 to commemorate the variety’s renaissance in Chile. In honour of this year’s celebration, I tasted a wide selection of carménères available in Canada to suggest some favourites. The styles range from dependable value-priced wines to rich and complex red wines with a uniquely Chilean sense of place.
Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère Reserva 2021 (Chile), $14.95
Chile’s largest wine producer, Concha y Toro uses carménère in many wines across its extensive portfolio. The value-priced Casillero del Diablo label shows carménère’s characteristic herbal and leafy fragrance but becomes more focused on fruit flavours when you take a sip. The mixed berry compote flavours make for a crowd-pleasing style that you can enjoy by the glass or enjoy with barbecued or grilled meat or game. Drink now to 2025. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, $15.99 in Manitoba, $17.99 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Montes Purple Angel 2020 (Chile), $96.95
One of Chile’s best known icon wines, Purple Angel is a blend of carménère with petit verdot (8 per cent) coming from two of Montes’ estate vineyards, Finca de Apalta and the El Arcangel de Marchigue, in the Colchagua Valley. Its style is ripe and robust, a full-bodied red with rich dark fruit flavours enhanced by smoky and herbal notes. The tannins are polished, but provide structure to balance the powerful fruit, making this suitable to enjoy now or cellar. Drink now to 2031. Available at the above price in Ontario, $97.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $89 in Quebec, $99.99 in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, $84.99 in Nova Scotia.
Santa Carolina Reserva Carménère 2021 (Chile), $14.99
Made with carménère grown in the Cachapoal Valley, this opens with aromas of bay leaf and smoke, with some floral and dark fruit notes. The flavour suggests a crowd-pleasing mix of berries and spice with a short finish. Drink now. Available at the above price in Manitoba ($12.99 until Nov. 30), $17.29 in New Brunswick.
San Pedro 1865 Selected Vineyards Carménère 2021 (Chile), $18.95
1865 acknowledges the year that San Pedro winery was founded in Chile. It has since grown to become one of the country’s largest producers, making a range of regional wines at a variety of quality levels. This is fragrant red from Maule captures the savoury side of carménère, revealing dried herbs, peppercorn and earthy notes atop of red fruit and cassis flavours. The balance between freshness and ripe fruit character is spot-on, making this medium-bodied red appetizing and age-worthy. Drink now to 2029. Available at the above price in Ontario, $25.99 in British Columbia, $22.99 in Manitoba.
Santa Rita Floresta Carménère 2021 (Chile), $29.95
Made from an old block of carménère in the prized Apalta region of Colchagua, Floresta is a polished and juicy red that shows ripe cherry and floral notes. Aging mostly in concrete tanks with 25 per cent in barrels contributes to the concentrated and refreshing character and velvety texture, which makes this easy to appreciate. Drink now to 2027. Available in Ontario (Dec. 2 LCBO Vintages release).
Terra Vega Carménère 2022 (Chile), $14.30
Terra Vega is a label made by family wine estateLuis Felipe Edwards, which owns 2,000 hectares of vineyards in different regions across Chile. Carménère and 10 per cent of alicante bouschet combine for a ripe and enjoyable red wine. The flavours suggest a blend of cherry, black berry and peppery spice. Over all, this is appealing but not unmistakeably carménère in nature. Drink now to 2026. Vegan. Kosher. Available in Ontario.
Vina Ventisquero Root 1 Carménère Colchagua Reserva 2019 (Chile), $16.95
First produced in 2005, Root 1 is a rich and complex red made from carménère and syrah (15 per cent) grapes grown in the El Suspiro vineyard in Colchagua Valley. Made in a ripe and concentrated style, this offers a pleasing core of blueberry and blackberry fruit with added complexity from herbal, spice and savoury notes. It shows a step up in style and quality compared with similarly priced examples. Drink now to 2027. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta, $15.49 in Manitoba ($13.94 until Nov. 30).
Volcanes de Chile Reserva Carménère 2021 (Chile), $16.95
Chile has more than 2,900 volcanoes, which inspired this wine producer to focus on making wine from grapes grown in vineyards cultivated in volcanic soils. This expressive red is made in the Rapel Valley from carménère grapes with 15 per cent cabernet sauvignon that produced a juicy and generous wine with an appealingly fruity and savoury character. The fragrance suggests a complex array of herbal, olive and tobacco alongside berry and cassis notes, while the flavours emphasis ripe fruit and spicy notes that carry through to a linger finish. Drink now to 2027. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta.