Carmenère: Renewing our vows

Thursday, 29 June 2017 08:40

In the 1990s, Chile missed the opportunity to position Carmenère as a unique wine of outstanding quality by selling overly green notes to our main markets. Many years have passed, and now Chilean winemakers have finally learned how to manage it and understood what they should aim at. Chile’s flagship variety is getting a second chance to prove its worth. And this time we cannot waste it.

The torrid romance of a decade ago –when Carmenère inspired all kinds of passions– has cooled down into a more distant relationship. The growing interest given to other actors like our foundational varieties and other Mediterranean cultivars took away much of the magic. Carmenère ceased to be the darling of the industry and the furious love gave way to more discrete affection and respect. Many of us, however, are still deeply in love with it.We forgive the green notes of its youth and let ourselves be seduced by its silky curves and the profound generosity of its carmine soul.

“Our commitment to Carmenère is a long-term one.It is much more deeply rooted than any temporary industry fashion. Without doubt, the recovery of our traditional grapes and the search for new terroirs is a positive trend that has boosted the image of Chile as a dynamic country in a constant state of reinvention. But Carmenère is an entirely different story,” affirms Concha y Toro’s winemaker Marcio Ramírez.

This winery alone, not counting other members of the holding, has 528 hectares distributed across almost all wine valleys, although its focal point is in Peumo (Cachapoal), the birthplace of its top lines Carmín de Peumo and Terrunyo. But the road to give this variety international status has been a rocky one.

“Carmenère started on the right foot, with big prospects of becoming the flagship of Chilean viticulture, but somehow it lost momentum along the way. This is a very special variety that has had great difficulty consolidating its identity. Initially, many producers were tempted by its green notes and failed to manage it correctly, disappointing consumers who still remember the taste of those first wines. But time has passed and now we understand it better and manage it accordingly. This translates into better wines that offer a rounder and more balanced character,” Mr Ramírez explains.

As a wine conglomerate, Santa Rita has 350 hectares, of which 78 are located in the high-quality areas of Marchigüe and Apalta (Colchagua).According to the group’s winemaker Sebastián Labbé, Carmenère is a fantastic variety, although it likes to play hard to get. “I believe there is good historical context and very good vineyards, but we still need to create new styles. Many Carmenères are similar in terms of ripeness, wood use, concentration and fattiness. Personally, I am obsessed with the idea of exploring the other side, with earlier harvests, less extraction, vinification in wooden casks or with reduced wood presence and checking what that vertical, fresher profile has to offer. Unfortunately, we are limited by the terroir.You cannot make these wines just anywhere.Only a handful of vineyards offer the right conditions to achieve early ripening and proper pyrazine degradation”, he explains.

Viña La Rosa manages 120 hectares, all of them in Peumo, where soil studies have provided a comprehensive snapshot of the quality potential of its grapes in almost all its lines, including the icon wine Ossa. According to its winemaker Gonzalo Cárcamo, Carmenère is just one more variety, one that adds complexity and identity to its wine portfolio. It does not compete with new varieties or trendy terroirs, but complements them.“Other varieties seem to be having their 15 minutes of fame right now. In this sense, Carmenère has sort of withdrawn lately, but there is still room for all. Chile needs to demonstrate its identity and offer an attractive palette of different varieties and styles.And Carmenère has indeed a lot to offer.”

Ricardo Pérez Cruz, winemaker of Korta –which owns 18 hectares in the sub-valleys of Lontué and Sagrada Familia (Curicó)– has a relatively similar opinion. “In its haste for introducing and/or increasing its wine offer, Chile has produced an enormous array of new wines and brands to distribute and export to virtually any place on the planet (meaning China). In this frenzy, only a few people would think of Carmenère and its aristocratic legacy. But regardless of the evident advantages we would obtain by strengthening our signature variety, I believe the focus today is elsewhere. Looking for and discovering diversity seems more attractive and catches the attention of wine writers, sommeliers and journalists. I would tend to believe that the time for Carmenère is over…” he sentences.

But for Juan Aurelio Muñoz, winemaker of La Ronciere who planted 40 hectares in coastal Licantén (Curicó), statistics don’t lie. “Although in recent years there has been an explosion of new terroirs, family undertakings and projects to recover our foundational varieties, figures speak for themselves: Carmenère occupies a place of privilege in the portfolios of Chilean wineries. It is the third most exported variety, with more than 3 million cases annually, only behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.And in the last 5 years, its annual average growth has surpassed the national total, with 8% and 3% respectively.”

For Mr Muñoz, being an exporting country forces us to innovate. But first we must focus on our traditional varieties, improving the expressiveness of our Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, the minerality of our Chardonnays, the freshness of our Cabernet Sauvignons and the red fruits of our Carmenères. And although he celebrates the efforts to recover our foundational grapes, he remains skeptical. In his opinion, too much enthusiasm can be commercially dangerous.

“The enological potential of varieties like Muscatel, País, Torontel and Semillon is much lower. That is why there is lesser demand for them, even in our own country. The volume of these cultivars is insignificant compared to the total produced and the picture is not likely to change. I fear we may be sending a wrong message to small producers who have limited access to this type of information and may think that producing them is a good long-term opportunity. Carmenère is definitely on a different level. So our focus should be on strengthening our flagship variety around the world. And to do that, we need stronger and more direct public and private policies,” he concludes.

BEWARE THE PRICE

Carmenère’s quality potential is beyond doubt, especially in highprice segments. According to Gonzalo Cárcamo, if well planted and properly managed, it produces greatly aromatic, juicy and concentrated wines with firm and silky tannins. “This mixture of fattiness and smooth tannins is crucial from a commercial point of view. You may produce many different high-profile varieties that are fun to taste with journalists, but ultimately consumers will always have the last word. And customers have responded spectacularly to the style of our Carmenère,” he points out.

According to Juan Aurelio Muñoz, Chile has done a great job positioning a practically unknown variety that is also hard to manage, prone to fruit set failure and with high pyrazine levels. The largest volumes correspond to cases under USD 40. “But Carmenère has a higher price than the national average: USD 33 vs. USD 29 per case. The only way to further increase its price is to produce worldclass wines. But the road ahead is still long. Today, Chilean wineries have good quality levels across their portfolios, and that is a great competitive advantage. Carmenère is doing great, but I don’t think we should expect more in the short or medium term,” he explains.

For Marcio Ramírez, we must understand that in order to achieve a better expression we need to focus on medium-high price segments and leave mass wines behind. “At Concha y Toro, most of our Carmenères are in the super premium and ultra premium segments, with outstanding results. The public receives them warmly, understands them and buys them. What we have achieved in Asia with wines such as Carmín de Peumo is nothing short of extraordinary. They have earned a great name in the icon wine segment,” he affirms.

“I believe this is a nice challenge in the USD 15-18 retail price range (cases of USD 70 FOB). That is where Chile needs to build a stronger image and Carmenère can definitely help. We do hope that consumers who tried a green wine 10 years ago can give us a second chance. At entry level, however, this is a much more difficult task. You can tell immediately if this variety has been planted in the wrong place,” adds Sebastián Labbé.

A CARMINE BULLET

Although Carmenère has positioned itself quite successfully, especially if we consider the very few years since its rediscovery, there is still much to do to increase its quality and consistency across the board.

“In this sense, I believe we should build a common front as an industry and agree on the objectives we seek to achieve… It is tremendously rewarding to hear how the different markets recognize Carmenère as our country’s flagship variety, but we should never forget that wine should speak for itself, confirming the commercial strategies in the glass. Otherwise all these efforts would be futile. So I think we should improve the terroir aptitude/ potential as well as viticultural management,” says Juan Aurelio Muñoz.

Marcio Ramírez points in this same direction. “All the industry efforts to promote this variety are necessary and welcome. For this type of undertaking, the industry should be united, with each winery refraining from promoting just its own brands. We can only make a difference if we work as a country,” he affirms.

But the issue is not that simple. “The answer should be a big, unanimous YES. But I believe that in an atomized industry such an effort would be senseless, basically because this variety remains largely unknown,” says Ricardo Pérez Cruz. “We should focus on opening new markets and generating greater business volumes, as has been the case with the Chinese market in recent years. Smaller wineries have strived to become versatile to effectively respond to what the market wants. So, betting on Carmenère does not seem such a great idea. In fact, in China they are barely familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps for the larger players the strategy to position Carmenère should go hand in hand with a strengthening of their brands,” he adds.

For Sebastián Labbé, there is only one way to achieve this: Large and small wineries should come together and make a real difference, showing new styles and conveying a consistent and attractive message. “We need to work in unison as one country. Carmenère undoubtedly contributes to broadening our palette, but we must ensure we are aiming at the quality targets we want. We have a new chance. Just one more, I believe,” he concludes.

So let’s not waste it. Carmenère is a rather sensitive variety. It would simply not resist to be rejected again.