Carmenère: The vineyard's best-kept secret

Chilean winemakers used to pass carmenÿre off as merlot. Now, at last, the grape is winning respect
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''Pickled monkey's brains, anyone?" The shrivelled-up object at a Maule Valley winery lunch was actually mote con huesillo, a Chilean speciality of dried peaches with wheat in a cinnamon-based infusion.

''Pickled monkey's brains, anyone?" The shrivelled-up object at a Maule Valley winery lunch was actually mote con huesillo, a Chilean speciality of dried peaches with wheat in a cinnamon-based infusion. It was a delicious relief in Chile's monotonous gastronomic landscape. Though there's no shortage of wonderful raw ingredients, lack of imagination often stymies the potential for culinary variety – it's usually limited to numerous cuts of beef. A similar conformity afflicts the make-up of its grape varieties. Apart from a new-found enthusiasm for the syrah grape, Chile has relentlessly ploughed the dual furrow of the Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

By chance, though, Chile has now discovered carmenère, a unique grape variety with a heritage it can call its own. You'll often find carmenère on the wine list in Chile in the special section devoted to cepas novedosas, or novel grape varieties. Although novel, carmenère is actually an ancient grape variety. It was one of Bordeaux's major grapes before its vineyards were sucked dry by the vampire louse, phylloxera, in the late 19th century. Carmenère was introduced in Chile as part of a Bordeaux package back in the 1840s, but while it disappeared in Bordeaux, it survived in Chile, where somehow it managed to lose its identity. That was until two French grape boffins called Claude Valat and Jean-Michel Boursiquot turned up like a couple of bad centimes and caused an almighty kerfuffle.

Valat was first on the scene in the early 1990s, and said the grape wasn't merlot at all, but might be Bordeaux's long-lost carmenère. He was swiftly followed in 1994 by Boursiquot, who confirmed that the impostor was indeed carmenère. Half of the Chilean wine industry went into shock, the other half into denial, because merlot was proving a runaway success, while carmenère was an unknown quantity. Despite the identification, the changeover process has been gradual and painful. Even today, while the official statistics proclaim that Chile has 12,800 hectares of merlot and 4,700 of carmenère, the reality, according to Yerko Moreno, a specialist in grapes and viticulture at Talca University, is closer to three-fifths carmenère and two-fifths merlot.

Eight years ago, hardly a hectare of carmenère was recognised as such. The Chilean Association of Exporters was unenthusiastic, because merlot was just taking off. But a couple of wineries, Carmen and Santa Ines, took the implications of this apparently heretical discovery on board. Alvaro Espinoza, Carmen's winemaker in 1994, recalls: "I said we shouldn't hide our heads in the sand, but take advantage of our good fortune and shout about it." Espinoza went ahead and bottled the carmenère, using the old French name of "grande vidure", partly because it sounded more Spanish.

Although it had been passed off as such for years, carmenère is actually quite dissimilar to merlot. Its leaves show red shoots in the spring while merlot's are green, its bunches are tighter with larger grapes, and its abundant leaves get in the way of the ripening process. More to the point, it ripens much later than merlot. And being for the most part mixed together but harvested at the same time, carmenère has typically been picked not fully ripe, despite relatively high alcohol levels. The result has been a lot of untamed reds with fierce acidity and too much herbaceous, green-pepper character for its own good. Hence the frequent criticism of Chilean merlot for its green, vegetal flavours. Picked ripe, however, carmenère is a different proposition: smooth, rich and voluptuous, with an acceptable hint of capsicum, albeit often lacking a bit of spine when bottled on its own.

"Now everyone has carmenère, and they're proud of it," says Espinoza. With demand for carmenère high and grape prices on a par with merlot, there's no longer any commercial advantage in trying to pretend that the grape is merlot. In September, Wines of Chile showed 47 carmenères in London. And Chile's expensive top reds, such as Almaviva, Seña, Antiyal and Clos Apalta, all contain significant enough proportions of carmenère to show the grape is being taken seriously.

First, there's the unpretentiously juicy style, made to be drunk young with everyday dishes such as pasta, pizza, sausages, ribs or roast chicken. In this category, there are some nicely balanced examples such as the 2000 Luis Felipe Edwards (£5.99, Tesco), all up-front, berry fruitiness with a touch of sweetness and vanilla from oak ageing. Similarly, the 2000 Anakena Carmenère Reservado from Rapel (£7.99, Morrisons), offers nice, easy, brambly fruit with a light touch of green pepper. One of my favourites in the style is the 2000 Viu Manent Carmenère (£5.99, for stockists contact Stratford's Wine Agencies, 01628 810 606) with its no-nonsense, sappy, raspberrryish fruitiness.

Then there's the attempt at a more serious wine, usually incorporating a larger proportion of cabernet sauvignon and more oak, on occasions too much, to give it something of a stylish, almost European feel. The 1999 MontGras Carmenère Reserva (£6.49, Sainsbury's, Waitrose) in this style has plenty of vanilla oakiness and attractive fruit richness with a nip of acidity to keep its freshness.

The 1999 Carmen Reserve Carmenère (£7.49-£7.99, Safeway, Oddbins, Wine Cellar), is also stylishly put together with more of a blackcurrant fruit character (partly from the cabernet) and powerful tannins, which cry out for rack of lamb of a joint of beef. Even more impressive, the 1999 Caliterra Arboleda Carmenère (£12.99, Wimbledon Wine Cellar, 020-8540 9979; D Byrne, Clitheroe, 01200 423 152; Selfridges), is a vivid, rich, oaky and concentrated example of the variety, whose full-throttle tannins not only need food, but time in bottle, too.

As the variety of styles suggests, carmenère, like the returning prodigal son, has yet properly to find its feet. The debate over the most suitable locations has only just begun, with the southerly Maule Valley and the warm Colchagua Valley two areas so far identified as likely contenders for the best carmenère. The issue of whether carmenère is best on its own or in a blend with cabernet sauvignon is also still undecided. "In the next 10 years, believe me, you'll see much better carmenère," insists Yerko Moreno. Couple this with the inclines of Chile's Andean vineyards, and the phrase "steep learning curve" comes readily to mind.