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Carmenère Red Wine Grape Turns 21 in Chile

Red Grapes on vine

November 27, 2015 – Exactly 21 years ago, on November 24, the Carmenère (car-men-yair) wine grape was discovered in Chile.  Thought to be extinct, the grape had actually been growing in Chile for about 150 years but it was confused with Merlot and used in the production of Chilean Merlot which was always considered quite distinctive from other Merlots.

Carmenère, named for the brilliant color of the vine’s autumn foliage, was once one of the six red grape varieties allowed to be used in Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère – but the grape is hardly grown in Bordeaux now.  It was wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1860s and because it is a difficult grape to cultivate in the Bordeaux region, it has rarely been replanted.  However, two brave souls, Marc and Elodie Milhade, the bother and sister duo at Château Recougne on the Right Bank planted about five acres of Carmenère on the 250-acre estate in 2000.  They make varietal specific wines only in exceptional years and their wine is silky and light, distinguishing them from the robust wines from Chile.

The Carmenère rootstock that was brought to Chile in the 1850s prior to the phylloxera plague, continued to flourish in a climate well suited to its preference for dry springs and minimal rainfall during the growing season.  At Casa Silva in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, Mario Pablo Silva has been conducting research to find the best clones of Carmenère to plant and he sees the grape as important to the future of Chile’s wine industry.  He is urging the industry to embrace the grape’s potential saying, “It is now time for Chile to embrace Carmenère’s potential. Not only is it a unique variety to our country, it can make truly world-class wines, whether varietal or blends.” The grape is best known for its deep color, elegance, structure, plentiful soft tannins and concentrated flavors, Silva said.

On November 24, Wines of Chile’s held the second annual #CarmenereDay with Periscope broadcasts from Chile and the US.  A team of wine experts took 466 participants from all over the USA through the origins of the Carmenère wine grape, its arrival and rediscovery in Chile and guided tastings of several delicious examples of the Carmenère wines available in the USA today.