The Lost Grape of Bordeaux

Carmenère disappeared from France in the 19th century and reappeared in Chile 100 years later.

2008 Clos Ouvert Carmenère Loncomilla

People turn up in the unlikeliest locations—think of the Jews of Cochin, for instance, or the Japanese community in Brazil, or Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree. Wine grapes can also surface in unexpected places. Take carmenère. At one time, this low-yielding, somewhat difficult variety was a mainstay of Bordeaux, prized for its deep color and rich flavors. After the Bordelais abandoned carmenère in the late 19th century, the grape was thought to have gone extinct. In the early 1990s, however, it was rediscovered flourishing a world away, in the vineyards of Chile, and many people think it might well become the skinny country’s signature variety. No doubt, carmenère has a compelling story, but how good are the wines that it produces?

In its Bordeaux incarnation, carmenère apparently turned out sensational wines. It was widely cultivated in the Médoc, the area encompassing some of Bordeaux’s most famous appellations (Pauillac, Margaux) and wineries (Latour, Lafite), and was a key component in what were considered the finest clarets. But carmenère was a bastard to work with. It had difficulty ripening in Bordeaux’s fickle climate and was vulnerable to both oidium powdery mildew and coulure (poor fruit set). After the phylloxera root louse cut a devastating swathe through Bordeaux, winemakers decided that the grape was no longer worth the bother and opted not to replant it. With its disappearance from Bordeaux, carmenère was presumed to have died off.

Cut to the mid-1990s. Chilean winemakers had long been intrigued by what they thought was a unique clone of the merlot grape growing in many vineyards. It was slower to ripen than other merlot, and its leaves were pinkish, which was also unusual. French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot was soon on the case, and he determined that the mystery fruit was, in fact, carmenère—the so-called “lost grape of Bordeaux.” DNA testing subsequently confirmed this. It is believed that vine cuttings from Bordeaux were brought to Chile in the mid-19th century, and that carmenère found a safe haven there because the South American country was never hit by phylloxera. In the years since carmenère’s true identity was revealed, the Chileans have embraced it as if it were a native son and have ramped up its production dramatically. In turn, Chile has proved to be an excellent home in exile for the grape, especially the vineyards of the central valley, where the Mediterranean climate (warm-but-not-excessively-hot days, cool nights) and long growing seasons are ideal.

The carmenère boomlet has coincided with a period of great prosperity for the Chilean wine industry. Chile is currently the fourth-leading importer of wines to the United States, and according to industry analyst Eileen Fredrikson, sales have tripled in just the last decade. (There may be some supply problems in the pipeline now on account of the earthquake that struck Chile last February; many wine producers were hit hard, and a lot of juice was destroyed.) The Chileans have had success with “international” grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. With carmenère, however, they have the chance to offer something virtually unique (some carmenère is also produced in Italy), to set themselves apart in a crowded marketplace. For anyone who values diversity (not to mention redemptive tales of grapes lost and found), the fact that the Chileans are so enthusiastic about this immigrant grape is gratifying.

Unfortunately, what the Chileans are making with carmenère is not so wonderful. The tasting I did for this article was dispiriting, to put it kindly; many of the wines lacked personality and depth, and some were jammy, hideously oaky confections that were indistinguishable from other, similarly afflicted New World wines. The worst offenders were the most expensive, which at least offered a measure of perverse pleasure to what was otherwise a slog. The 2005 Concha y Toro Carmín de Peumo Carmenère ($120), the 2007 Errazuriz Kai Carmenère ($120), and the 2006 Montes Purple AngelCarmenère ($55) all tasted like oak syrup, which is not a taste I especially recommend. (They also came in some of the heaviest bottles I’ve encountered; their carbon footprints must be more like carbon dinosaur tracks.)

There were a few wines that I thought were pretty good. I liked the 2009 Apaltagua Reserva Carmenère ($10) for its restrained fruit and notes of menthol and green pepper. Its stablemate, the 2008 Apaltagua Envero Gran Reserva Carmenère ($15), was also pleasant; a blend of 93 percent carmenère and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, it had a nice meaty richness plus a welcome dash of minerality. The 2009 Lapostolle Casa Carmenère (which has a bit of merlot in it) was decent, too, and the $13 price tag accentuated its virtues.

But overall, this was one sorry parade of wines. I recognize that Chile is an emerging region (even though its winemaking tradition stretches back some 500 years), and there are certainly fine wines being made there. But the gap between all the buzz about carmenère and what was actually in the glass was yawning. At the very least, vintners ought to dial back the oak. Why turn carmenère into just another generic, egregiously woody New World wine? Why celebrate this viticultural windfall only to completely smother the character of the grape? In an article several years ago, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov expressed similar frustration and issued an emphatic plea that bears repeating: Let carmenère be carmenère!

And actually, a winery cleverly named Clos Ouvert is doing just that. Located in the Maule Valley, it is run by a pair of French expats (an ironic twist on carmenère’s history). I discovered the 2008 Clos Ouvert Carmenère Loncomilla ($26) after tasting some two dozen other carmenères, and it was truly like finding water in a desert. Made from organically farmed grapes (100 percent carmenère) and raised in older, neutral oak barrels, the Loncomilla opened with an enthralling blast of green olive, along with notes of leather, black currant, and herbs; it initially seemed like a dead ringer for a Syrah from France’s northern Rhone valley. The wine was full-bodied, with pleasingly austere fruit, a terrific savory edge, good structure, and a long, peppery finish. Here, finally, was an interesting, distinctive, thoroughly delicious carmenère, a carmenère that lived up to the grape’s fascinating pedigree. One word of advice to readers: You should uncork the Loncomilla an hour or so before you plan to drink it in order to give it a chance to breathe, and decanting it would be a good idea. And a suggestion to other Chilean winemakers: Pick up a bottle of the Loncomilla. (It is easy lifting—it comes in a nice, standard-weight bottle.) Give the wine a try, and see what you think.

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