The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
When the phylloxera root louse began devastating French vineyards in the late 19th century, many suddenly idled Bordeaux winemakers bailed for Chile. They became, in a sense, the founding fathers of that South American country's modern wine industry, accelerating quality with their advanced knowledge and Gallic accents (wine always seems to taste better in French, n'est-ce pas?). But the most influential French immigrant to arrive in Chile's vineyards during that century was not a beret-wearing barrel jockey but, rather, a vine, carmenère. A transplant from Bordeaux, the red variety began to thrive under Chile's sunny skies just as it was meeting its doom back in the mother country. Carmenère fell out of favour in France not just because of phylloxera but because of growers' eventual frustration over poor fruit yields, a consequence of Bordeaux's cloudy, humid conditions that inhibit the vine's flowering early in the season.
It was to become Chile's signature grape, a distinction delayed for more than a century by a case of mistaken identity. Until two decades ago, much of the carmenère planted in Chile was confused with a close relative, merlot, even labelled as such on countless bottles that were in fact blends of merlot and carmenère. The tide turned in 1994 when a man named J.-M. Boursiquot called merlot's bluff, a theory confirmed by DNA testing in 1997.
Producers turned the embarrassment on its ear, quickly seizing on "near extinct" carmenère as Chile's global calling card, a variety capable of yielding complex, full-bodied wines with enticing flavours of blackberry and chocolate enlivened by coffee, black pepper and herbs. It's a perfect partner for hearty red-meat courses and even weighty vegetarian dishes featuring tomato sauce.
There was just one initial problem: Most carmenère in the 1990s tasted more like merlot strained through a jalapeno pepper. To call those wines "green" would be flattering. Carmenère begs for a long growing season, becoming fully ripe only several weeks after the merlot comes in from the vineyard. It also performs best on well-drained hillsides, where a meagre water supply ensures more concentrated fruit and succulent roundness.
Many producers were impressively quick off the mark – once they'd learned what they were dealing with – moving up the Andes foothills with new plantings. The carmenère bottles you'll find in stores today represent a spectrum, from old-school lean and green to the ripe and luscious offerings of more exacting wineries. Price, as usual with so many things, tends to make a difference. Spend more than $15 and you're far more likely to strike Chilean gold. But, frankly, I don't mind a whiff of old-school jalapeno, especially alongside a plate of beef enchiladas.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.