Carmenère: Playing in the Major Leagues

by | 28 Aug, 2006

Much has been said lately about Carménère’s downsides and very little about its virtues. A renowned British wine writer even received a standing ovation from Chilean winery representatives when he said that our signature variety was not major league material. Such paradoxical behavior is certainly hard to understand, mostly if we think that there is scientific evidence galore to prove otherwise.

Carmenère used to be a star in Médoc. Today, Chile reinvents it as a late-harvesting varietal. The low yields and natural acidity add to the highest anthocyanin levels of all Bordeaux varieties, very smooth and round tannins, and aromas to create a complex wine with great aging potential. When the grapes are picked at the right time, that is.

“This is not Cabernet Franc. It’s Carmenère.” When Jean Michel Boursiquot said these words back in 1994, nobody actually comprehended what he was referring to, let alone the consequences this short and categorical sentence would bring about. The lot the ampelographer was studying at Viña Carmen was not even labeled as Cabernet Franc, but as Merlot. To the few witnesses of the discovery, the name Carmenère sounded absolutely mysterious, virginal, and uneasy. Pontificia Univesidad Católica’s professor Philippo Pszczolkowski, the president of the Organizing Committee of the VI Latin American Congress on Viticulture and Enology, was directly responsible for the visit of the French specialist to Chile. He was so shocked by the revelation, that instead of going home that evening, he headed straight into the library of his office. Carmenère? Grande Vidure? Carmenelle? Cabernelle? Grand Carmenet? Carbouet? The only one capable of providing a solid answer was Cazeaux-Cazalet in the 1901 ampelography by Viala and Vermorel: “Slow to become productive and with a tendency to coulure… The clusters ripen earlier that Cabernet Franc and the resulting wines are richer, more delicate, deeper in color, with a number of exceptional qualities.”

This rather enthusiastic presentation quickly sparked the professor’s curiosity. “Cazeaux-Cazelet was not referring to just any variety,” says Prof. Pszczolkowski.  Of course not.  Carmenère stood at the base of Médoc’s fame, but in the wake of the disastrous phylloxera plague in Europe, it was replaced by a second-class variety called Merlot. The reason? Most likely because of Carmenère’s productive problems. Maybe because of its sometimes exasperating parsimony to ripen its fruit. Who knows? The variety is so delicious, it is therefore little wonder the plague devoured it and virtually wiped it off the wine map, he affirms.

Eventually, Prof. Pszczolkowski came to understand Boursiquot’s words. The Cabernet Franc the ampelographer was referring to was exactly the same his colleague Claude Valat had identified in 1991 at Viña San Pedro’s estates in Molina. In other words, Carmenère.” The variety appeared in Chile as if by magic, although back then, influential vintners concurred it represented a serious threat to the booming Merlot exports. The truth is it was also a one-of-a-kind opportunity to differentiate our viticulture by raising a new flag that, unfortunately, is still the target of acrimonious debate. Since the discovery, Prof. Pszczolkowski’s telephone did not stop ringing, not precisely to celebrate the new finding, but to force him not to reveal a secret that by then everybody knew.

It was the winemakers themselves –all board members of the Chilean Association of Agricultural Engineers-Enologists– who sealed the variety’s fate. Alvaro Espinoza, then winemaker of Viña Carmen, bottled the first Carmenère in 1995 under the synonym Grande Vidure. The wine’s success during the Sélections Mondiales held in Montreal called the attention of the press. One of the juries, professor Philippo Pszczolkowski, completely disregarded the threats and delivered a mythical lecture on the recovery of a variety lost in oblivion. Then in 1996, Viña De Martino’s winemaker Adriana Cerda bottled Chile’s first vintage labeled as Carmenère, which was sold to the United Kingdom. Her colleague Víctor Acosta, the director of the Winery and Alcohols department of the Agricultural and Livestock Service, had no other choice but to fine the winery for selling a variety non-existent in Chile, at least under the legislation in vigor. But it was already too late for the apocalyptical voices that prophesized the end of Chilean viticulture.  Prof. Pszczolkowski did not receive calls to insult him anymore, but requests to certify new Carmenère lots. The area planted to the variety grew exponentially, from the 95 hectares recorded in 1996, to the more than 6,500 that appear in the latest Viticultural Land Register of December 2004. Carmenère was no longer just another variety; it had turned itself into an idea. It ceased to be a discovery to become an invention. For many, a new flagship.


From then on, Carmenère has been the subject of studies and great debate. A vigorous vine, the buds at the base of the canes are not very fertile, a characteristic that calls for long fruiting cane pruning, instead of the old spur pruning practice. It also takes its time to start producing. In cold climates or in soils posing certain limitations –sandy soils with low plantation density, little air or boron content–, the variety shows a marked tendency towards arrested fruit setting (coulure), a phenomenon that considerably undermines its production capability. A whimsical variety, without doubt, but when you treat it with care and take the time to understand it thoroughly, it can deliver some of the most interesting wines of the Bordeaux family.

Unlike Cazeaux-Cazalet’s statements, this is a late ripening variety that is not only picked after Cabernet Franc, but in most cases after Cabernet Sauvignon as well. If harvested too early on, as was the case when it was mistakenly thought of as Merlot, the high pyrazin concentration results in exaggerated grassy notes. The Fondecyt project entitled “Metoxipyrazins in Carmenère: the effect of terroir and harvesting date” establishes beyond any doubts that the vintage influence outweighs the terroir influence by far. Consequently, there are greater differences between the 2003 and 2004 vintages than between Colchagua or Maipo.

Andrea Belancic, a researcher at the Aroma Center of P. Universidad Católica and one of the authors of said study, points out that methoxypyrazins are a by product of amino acid metabolic functions, and that their detection threshold in a red wine is 15 ng/l. Carmenère, on the other hand, contains pyrazins in the 5 – 44.4 range, which causes those typical green pepper, and in some cases green bean, notes. Nevertheless, the researcher says, these readings have significantly gone down with time, as winegrowers have retired Carmenère from colder zones and adjusted management by focusing on leaf plucking operations, for example. Pyrazins are photosensitive, so a dry year with good solar radiation like 2003 will result in low pyrazin concentrations.

Although the season’s particular conditions and vineyard management are decisive factors in Carmenère’s aromatic profile, Ms. Belancic has also realized that after a certain date –April 15 in 2005– the ripeness curves show no significant changes, with constant pyrazin levels in the grapes. In other words, a winemaker who waits for too long, beyond May or what is actually reasonable, will lose more than s/he can win, for s/he will eventually harvest nothing more than overripe fruit.

“A Carmenère without pyrazins is no Carmenère. But a wine made from raisins will always be a raisin wine, regardless of the variety used.” This is how Philippo Pszczolkowski describes the stubbornness of some vintners who insist on picking when it’s already too late, once the grapes have lost much of their varietal attributes. “Dry autumns are the great threat to Chilean viticulture. Without the risk of rains, is there a limit to how long they should wait before harvesting? That is what I call La Niña Syndrome, which pushes us to produce raisin wines. So, where is the value of terroir? Was the agricultural management any worth?” Prof. Pszczolkowski wonders.




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