Day nine of his “12 Wines of Christmas” series sees Peter Ranscombe taking a look at carmenere from Chile.
DIVING into a tin of Christmas chocolates can be a bit like a playing lucky dip at the showies – you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.
Back in 1994, Chilean farmers were faced with a similar dilemma.
Much of the “merlot” they believed to be growing in their vineyards turned out to be carmenere, one of the lesser-known varieties from Bordeaux.
Before the film version of Sideways came along, merlot was big business, so the revelation was seen initally as a blow to the industry.
Yet carmenere has gone on to become a standard bearer for Chile, just like malbec for Argentina.
One of the wineries that embraced carmenere was TerraNoble, which was founded in Chile’s Maule valley in 1993, before expanding into the Casablanca and Colchagua valleys in 2007.
Carmenere has become the winery’s flagship grape, which is celebrated in its “CA Project”.
CA1 is its “Carmenere Andes” and comes from its Los Lingues vineyard in the Colchagua valley, while CA is its “Carmenere Costa”, coming from its Lolol site, 70 kilometres closer to the coast.
Those mere 70 kilometres illustrate the different influences that the Andes Mountains and Pacific Ocean have on Chile’s grape-growing valleys, and also the variety of soils along those river courses.
Both vineyard and winery techniques in Chile have changed over the past 30 years to allow a project like CA to take place.
Back in the 1990s, carmenere was often harvested when it was green and unripe, leading to “pyrazine” flavours of green pepper – or worse – in the resulting wine.
To combat the undesirable flavours, either farmers would leave the grapes on the vine for longer and end up with over-ripe fruit and jammy flavours, or winemakers would hide the green pepper with sweet vanilla notes from toasted new oak barrels.
“We’re not afraid of pyrazine anymore,” explained TerraNoble winemaker Marcelo García during an online tasting last year.
“It’s associated with younger plots.”
Now, fresh fruit flavours and acidity are the order of the day, allowing carmenere to express different characteristics in different soils, rather than being hidden under oak.
Older vines are producing fewer pyrazine flavours, so harvesting can take place earlier to help retain fresher fruit flavours.
Winemaking is continuing to evolve too – García was ageing 15% of his wines in large wooden foudres in 2016, but increased the percentage to 20% the following year, and now has it sitting around 30%.
He’s also using larger barrels for the balance of the wine, now favouring 300-litre casks instead of 225-litre Bordeaux barriques.
The result is more expression of the fruit in the final wines.
García described the CA1 Andes as “fatter”, with more herbaceous notes, and the CA2 Costa as more “linear”.
I found the TerraNoble CA2 Carmenere Costa 2017 (£27.30, Vintage Cellars) had the more classic carmenere characteristics – blackcurrant and a bit of green pepper on the nose then bitter dark chocolate and a sprig of mint on the palate.
For me, the TerraNoble CA1 Carmenere Andes 2017 (on its way to the UK) had a definite damp earth – yet not unripe – note on the nose, in amongst the dark chocolate, raspberry, and redcurrant aromas.
Those red fruit flavours shone through on the palate.
Both wines displayed fresh acidity – something that’s often lacking from cheaper supermarket carmenere.
Comparing the 2017 to the TerraNoble CA1 Carmenere Andes 2016 (£28.99, The General Wine Company) demonstrated the differences that the weather brings to each vintage, with the 2016 showing off darker fruit flavours from the cooler spring and warm – as opposed to hot – summer.
From back where it all began for the winery in the Maule valley comes the TerraNoble Gran Reserva Carmenere 2017 (£14.50, Vintage Cellars), which offered mucher redder fruit aromas and flavours, with a touch of wood smoke and spun sugar.
It had the same fresh acidity, along with a slightly sweeter finish – a very elegant wine and a great example of what carmenere can do when it’s allowed to take centre stage.
Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with Bordeaux.
In the meantime, catch up on yesterday’s article about Spanish food and wine matching, and then read more of Peter’s vinous adventures on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.