Food & Drink

Try Chile's distinctive red wine

You've probably noticed Carmenere popping up in the Chilean section of your local wine shop.

Carmenere is a grape with an interesting story. Sometimes called the forgotten grape of Bordeaux, it is certainly not forgotten in Chile.

With its nearly perfect climate for growing grapes in fertile valleys, Chile is best known for making terrific wines from traditional grape varieties. Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay thrive there, as well as merlot – or what many winemakers thought was merlot.

Ampelographers are botanists who study grape cultivation. Just like Montel, they ask “Who's your daddy?” In 1994, a French ampelographer discovered that much of what was thought to be merlot was actually the grape variety carmenere.

Carmenere was widely planted in the Bordeaux area of France in the 17 {+t}{+h} and 18 {+t}{+h} centuries and was used in the famous blended red wines of the region. Cuttings were planted in Chile, where the grape quickly found a home.

In Bordeaux, meanwhile, plantings declined because of disease and yields. Today, Carmenere is virtually extinct in Bordeaux.

In Chile, the opposite occurred. The grape thrived under the sunny Chilean skies. Since 1998, wines may be labeled Carmenere, and they show promise to be something special and unique, a flagship wine for Chile.

But who cares about its heritage? The grape makes terrific wine. The word “carmenere” may be related to the word carmine, and wines made from it have a lovely, deep color.

Carmenere has a lot of the fruity, easy-to-like appeal of merlot, with some of the tannic structure of cabernet sauvignon. Typically, aromas are intense; fruity, smoky and spicy. Carmenere also blends well with other grapes. Carmenere-cabernet blends can be very tasty, and sometimes I prefer the blends to the stand-alone versions.

Carmenere is one of my favorite wines to enjoy with the last of the summer burgers and ribs. It has enough impact on the palate to stand up to more intense foods.

Carmenere hasn't gotten quite the same recognition as other red wines yet, but most shops carry a nice selection. You should be able to find a good bottle for less than $20 just about everywhere in town.