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Make Way for the 6th Bordeaux Variety

by Sara and Monty Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: Is it fair to tout a wine that is getting hard to find? Well, when you savor a wine as truly magnificent as the 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia, you just gotta let people know. We recently attended a superb dinner for 11 where a master Sommelier chose all 7 wines to accompany cuisine representing the world. The Insignia was the last served before dessert, and the only American wine in the room (the chef was French and the Sommelier Italian). But as soon as everyone took a sip and the “oohs and ahs” abated, it was clear why many of us have no problem designating California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends superior to any other. Fruit, smooth tannins, layers of different tastes, and a 3 minute finish combined for perfection. Fortunately, present releases are also marvelous, and while retailing most places for about $119, we found them at Costco for $99 – a very good buy for this collectible.

Make Way for the 6th Bordeaux Variety

In California, at least, when someone tells you that you are drinking a red Bordeaux blend, almost without exception that person means the wine is comprised of two or more of five grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and/or Malbec. In fact, one of the great blends, Cain V, earned its well deserved reputation when Cain Vineyards pioneered the use of the five abovementioned varieties in one wine, and marketing it as a something as good or better than a stand alone (interestingly, there have been years Cain V uses less than five varieties in the blend yet keeps the same name).

In reality, there are more than five red Bordeaux varietals, though only one other – Carmenere (Carmen-YAIR) – has been used in years past by winemakers with any sort of regularity, and those uses were decades ago in France when it was also referred to as Grand Vidure. Since then, Carmenere (from its intense crimson hue – “Carmon”) has been a grape variety lost in the shadows of its Bordeaux cousins. But, perhaps no more. Wineries in the New World are discovering a full and rich new grape to cultivate, and consumers seem to be more than pleased with the development.

The rediscovery, if you will, of Carmenere is fascinating. As we said, at least generations had ignored a grape that was once a major component in Bordeaux winemaking for both its depth of color and, in ripe years, flavor that can range from herbal to gamy and add complexity and interest to blends. However, viticulturists in France phased out its use after the phylloxera outbreak at the end of the 19th century. Not only did the yield tend to be low, but the region’s damp and chilly weather did not always permit Carmenere vines to set a reliable crop. “Coulure” (French) or “Shatter” (English), too often suffered by these vines, is the consequence of conditions that cause either the grapevine flowers to not pollinate, so they do not becomes berries, or the berries to fall off soon after they form. This means a crop of poor quantity, or none at all. Thus, after the scourge of phylloxera, rather than replant the problematic Carmenere, the French chose to plant more reliable grape vines.

But the variety was far from dead, as Carmenere somehow made its way, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to what was then perhaps an unlikely destination – Chile, which did not have the problems of weather that bothered Bordeaux planters then, and seem to have worsened over the last 100 years. The minimal rainfall which falls in the now major Chilean Carmenere producing area centered near Rapel and the Colchagua Valley, almost never occurs during growing season. Further, Chile’s natural boundaries form a barrier to the insects that spur phylloxera. Thus, Carmenere found a perfect home.

We all remember the 90’s when Merlot was hot, hot, hot. And not just in the U.S. This was a worldwide phenomenon not lost on a new breed of Chilean winemaker who produced inexpensive, yet quality, Merlots to quench the desires of the 90’s consumer. It was during this time that Chilean winemakers noticed different traits that set apart some of their Merlot from the rest (perhaps most importantly, vines that grew in the same micro climate would produce varying degrees of ripening). Careful analysis (credit for the discovery is usually given in 1994 to French ampelographer Jean-Michel Bourisiquot – also spelled in various places as “Boursiquot”) proved that some of the vines everyone thought was Merlot were not – they were in fact Carmenere, interspersed without rhyme or reason with the Merlot. Harvested as Merlot, this explained the differences in taste and ripeness, since Merlot ripens later.

How much of a problem this turn of events caused the Chilean wine industry is perhaps lost in the Spanish language (at least to us), but that nation’s winemakers apparently determined to make the proverbial lemonade from sour lemons. Spending some time with the variety, they recognized the huge blackberry taste with low tannins that make Carmenere an excellent pairing for a wide range of foods, and, when properly produced, delightful to drink. Fortunately for Chile, the grape grows so well there that Carmenere is immediately associated with that country, much like Shiraz is with Australia, Tempranillo with Spain, Zinfandel with California, and Malbec with Argentina.

So what has the rest of the New World been up to as it relates to Carmenere? California production giant Kendall-Jackson has distributed a major bottling of Carmenere under its Calina label, produced in Chile. According to Randy Ullom of Kendall-Jackson, “Carmenere is bound to grow in popularity as wine lovers discover its lush, exotic flavors. Those flavors are improving as new vineyards -- this time properly labeled -- mature and viticulturists learn how to pamper the fruit to best advantage.”

Guenoc, in Lake County, has been blending with Carmenere for a number of years. Vintners in the Walla Walla region of eastern Washington are also experimenting, and may be in this country’s best climate for the production of this exciting wine. Maverick and creative winemakers in the major California regions (always looking to move to the next level) will no doubt devote some time to learning what Carmenere offers, and producers world wide will be studying Carmenere as a distinct variety. Keep an eye out.



Way to Go, Mike: We recently had the opportunity to sail on the fabulous Crystal Cruise Line. Usually not fans of in house wines, whether they be made for restaurants or cruise ships, we reluctantly tried the C Merlot and the C Cabernet Sauvignon. It is an understatement to say how much we enjoyed these well made and well priced wines. We were even happier when we learned they were made by our friend and super winemaker Mike Drash of Luna Vineyards.

Way to Go, Peter: Same cruise. Would you believe by coincidence it was showcased as a food and wine event? The designated wine expert was Peter Marx, wine curator at COPIA in Napa. His classes were perfectly presented and set a high standard for anyone else teaching for the Line. When you visit Napa, be sure to visit COPIA for a wide wine and food experience, and say hello to Peter and attend some of his lectures.


Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

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