By Elspeth Brown
February is the perfect month to spice it up, and if you want to do it with wine, carménère is the way to warm your palate and the heart of the one drinking a glass with you. The carménère grape is a member of the cabernet family, and in the past was typically blended with other grapes. The juice produced has hints of green pepper, black peppercorn, eucalyptus, cocoa powder, paprika, tobacco, leather, earth and pomegranate. The wine pairs well with dark chocolate, roasted pork, lamb, roasted chicken and cheeses such as very sharp cheddar and Manchego.
For a long time, carménère was misidentified as merlot in Chile. Side by side, the leaves are almost the same, but the flavors are totally different. In 1994, French ampelographer Jean- Michel Boursiquot noticed that the “merlot” grapes in Chile took a very long time to ripen. This is when he figured out that the “merlot” vines were carménère vines. This opened up a whole new world for Chilean wines.
The carménère grape originated in the Bordeaux region of France, where it was believed to have gone extinct. The grapevines were thought to have been destroyed in France between 1860 and 1870 by the phylloxera plague. Phylloxera is a pest—an almost microscopic, pale, yellow, sap-sucking insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. What most didn’t know was that, ten years before the phylloxera epidemic, carménère rootstock had been sent to Chile, ultimately saving the carménère grape. Now, Chile is the number one producer for carménère wines.
It has only been since 1996 that the wine has been available to the general public. Viña Carmen winery was the first to release a carménère wine. Chile is so isolated— because of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east—that the country has, fortunately, never had a problem with phylloxera. Chile is the world’s largest producer of carménère, but there are a few other areas in the world that grow the grape. Some wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux and Virginia have produced carménère, and China has begun planting a large number of the vines.
Chile is the perfect environment to grow the carménère grape. Its warm climate allows the grapes to stay on the vine longer than in most countries. Carménère is a late ripening grape. If it is picked too early, it possesses a strong, herbaceous quality. The vines need to be planted in well-drained, clay soil. Some of the best Chilean wineries producing stunning carménères are Viña Undurraga, Odfjell Vineyards, J. Bouchon Winery and TerraNoble.
This February, when the weather is cold, pop open a bottle of spicy carménère, build a roaring fire and enjoy the wine with a box of luscious dark chocolate.
Elspeth Brown is the owner of Maggie B’s Wine & Specialty Store, 10 C South Main Street in Weaverville. For information, visit MaggieBsWine.com or call 828.645.1111.