Some grapes elicit a love-or-hate response. Musky gewurztraminer qualifies. So does herbaceous cabernet franc, with its blast of green bell pepper. Pinotage, South Africa's unique contribution to wine, comes across with an aroma that might put some people in mind of rubber tires or Band-Aids. No matter where they're grown or who makes them, they play the same divisive song, like, say, anything by Nickelback. But other grapes come by the love-'em-or-leave-'em reputation unfairly. I think that's the case with carmenere, Chile's signature red variety.
In many cases, carmenere can, indeed, be jarring, imbued as it is with a strong vegetal or dried-leaf character and sharp acidity, a double whammy far from the plump fruit and smooth texture of such crowd-pleasing varieties as shiraz and chardonnay. This has been conspicuously the case with much carmenere produced since 1994, when a French scientist confirmed that Chilean growers had widely been mistaking it for – and mislabelling it as – merlot. The vine arrived in Chile in the 19th century from Bordeaux, where it was once a staple of red blends but now is virtually a ghost because of its susceptibility to disease in humid conditions and tendency to produce low fruit yields.
The mix-up with merlot in its adopted South American homeland curbed progress for years. Planted at the wrong sites, often side by side with merlot and in valleys with excessive irrigation in winter, carmenere hit a wall just as it was emerging as a wine in its own right. But on well-drained slopes where the grape is permitted to achieve optimal ripeness, it can sing a very pleasant tune, offering up rich berry flavours and hints of earth, smoke and spice.
Quality-oriented producers have lately been doing the right thing and taking it to new heights. That's evident in one standout released today in Ontario as part of a fine Chilean feature at Vintages stores.
It's called Mayu Reserva Carmenere and it comes from the Elqui Valley, the country's northern most vineyard region. The Elqui is best-known for pisco (Chile's national spirit made from grapes) as well as the clearest skies on the planet. (It was on a nearby mountain observatory operated by the University of Toronto, incidentally, that Winnipeg-born Ian Shelton rocked the world with his discovery of an exploding star, or supernova, in 1987.) As dry as its skies are blue, the Elqui's air offers excellent conditions for a grape now shining in a way it never could in overcast Bordeaux.
Mayu Reserva Carmenere 2009
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $17.95
Full-bodied, ripe and brimming with dark berries and plum preserve, this succulent 15-per-cent-alcohol red comes with added layers of black pepper, mint, smoky pipe tobacco, cedar and herbs. It would glorify a grilled steak.
Altair Sideral 2007 (Chile)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Mainly cabernet sauvignon with some carmenere, cabernet franc and syrah, this is an inspired blend, showing cabernet sauvignon's classic black currant and mint complemented by herbal-spicy flavours of the three supporting grapes. I'd serve it with almost any beef dish. $24.99 in B.C.
Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Syrah 2008 (Chile)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Made by the big brand Concha y Toro,this full-bodied red exhibits French style syrah character, with a strong peppery quality that provides lift todark-berry fruit and a whiff of bacon, framed by solid acidity. Braised red meats are in order.
Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
The oaky-chadonnay style receives a deft hand here. Rich, full-bodied and smooth, it serves up tropical fruit, cold butter, toasted bread and a hint of cracked pepper. Try it with chicken in cream sauce or boiled lobster. $25.50 in Quebec.
Perez Cruz Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Gutsy, with a delectably bitter edge. Expect flavours of blackberry, eucalyptus and baking spices, all in fine balance, with a bit of grip from fine tannins on the finish. Good value, and also a fine steak partner.
Oveja Negra The Lost Barrel 2008 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
A blend of mostly syrah and carignan with small quantities of carmenere and petit verdot, this is a full-bodied yet subtly layered red, with nuances of berry jam, dark chocolate, flowers and herbs.
It would pair well with roast beef.
Caliterra Tributo Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Chile)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95
So grassy it's like kissing a golf course, this wine has a core of tropical fruit and supporting vegetal notes of cooked peas and asparagus. Crisp and refreshing for a sunny spring day. $17.99 in British Columbia, $18.95 in Saskatchewan.
Emiliana Signos de Origen La Vinilla Chardonnay Viognier Marsanne Roussanne 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $19.95
This is worth a detour for those seeking wine made from organic grapes. And it shows crowd-pleasing fruit, notably an essence of gewurztraminer-like lychee. It's more candied in flavour than I'd like, but should pair well with light freshwater fish. $22.25 in Quebec.
Joie Farm A Noble Blend 2011
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $23.90 in B.C.
Sometimes an unexpectedly cool growing season can deliver positive results. Acidity, abundant in the British Columbia crop of 2011, gives a fresh, lively quality to this aromatic, Alsatian-inspired blend of riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot auxerrois and schoenberger. Soft and fleshy in the middle, it comes across with flavours of sweet apple, lychee, lime and ginger. It's perfect with light curries or as a mouth-watering aperitif. Available at private stores in B.C. and Alberta; in Ontario, it's$407.40 a case through www.liffordwine.com.