By Lisa Rowlands

An ancient variety, Carménère is one of the original super-six grapes of the Médoc, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. However, it is now seldom seen in Bordeaux except for a small number of minuscule parcels at a handful of estates. Having been hard hit by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1860s, almost all plantings of the grape were destroyed, and producers - faced with the the inevitability of replanting - chose to do so with more resilient, hardy varieties. Carménère’s late ripening, low yield and relative difficulty of cultivation - as well as its being almost impossible to find after the crisis, led to near extinction. However, phylloxera-free Chile resurrected the grape’s fortunes (somewhat inadvertently in the first instance), adopting it as a national variety and using it to produce blends and varietals of increasingly high quality. Carménère has also found success in parts of neighbouring Argentina, as well as in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions of Italy. Additionally, there are small representations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

In order to be seen (and tasted) at its best, the Carménère grape needs a warm microclimate with long summers and intense exposure to sunshine. In these optimal conditions, it can produce excellent wines which display many of the sought-after characteristics of its more esteemed Bordeaux blending partners. Single varietal wines from the Carménère grape deliver intense fruit flavours with more than a hint of spice, and they are usually best consumed in their youth. When blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and other traditional Bordeaux varieties, the grape delivers richly coloured, plump wines with velvety tannins and a greater ageing potential. Much experimentation continues (particularly in Chile) to find the perfect partner for this variety, and it remains to be seen if the grape’s success here will lead to a sustained increase in plantings back in its native France.