It was only 20 years ago that Carménère was “discovered” by the French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot. Today, Carménère is one of Chile’s signature varieties with 8827 hectares of vines. It produces both single varietal and red blends of distinction. Its soft, dark red fruit with spice notes makes it a wonderful accompaniment to food. In this article, we review new releases from three Chilean wineries—Apaltagua, Calcu, and Maquis. For more on Carménère, see our Report # 21 The Chilean Wine Revolution and our special article on pairing Carménère with food.
The Carménère Grape
Carménère originated in Bordeaux, but it didn’t do well in the cold, often humid, climate of that region. Carménère requires both more heat and a longer growing season than Bordeaux offers. Not allowed to ripen fully, its high pyrazine content results in a green, vegetative note that can be off-putting. It is in many ways a sensitive grape that likes deep, well-drained (but not rich) soils; enough sun to fully ripen but not so much as to bake the fruit, and harvesting early enough to avoid an over-ripe jam character but late enough to avoid assertive green vegetal notes. It is a vigorous vine subject to coulure—poor fruit set after flowering—and low acidity, which can impart a flabby character on the palate. Fortunately, in a short period of time, Chile’s growers have managed to conquer most of these challenges through appropriate site selection and canopy management and are now producing the quality fruit that is expressed in the wines reviewed here.
Carménère comes in several styles, but the best ones show ripe, spicy dark red fruit on a soft, velvet-like palate with notes of black pepper and possibly smoke, tar, herbs, or green pepper. The wines are medium weight and pair beautifully with a variety of foods. Tannins are usually soft with varying degrees of oak spice, depending on the barrel regime of the winemaker. The care required to produce good quality Carménère, including keeping yields low, keeps its price in the middle range. Our reviews of some recent releases are given below.
Apaltagua 2013 Carménère Reserva Colchagua ($12) 90 This may be Apaltagua’s entry level Carménère, but it doesn’t taste like it. It’s nicely balanced and pure, showing red fruit on the nose and dark cherry with an attractive herbal note on the medium weight palate. Finishes very long and flavorful.
Apaltagua 2013 Envero Carménère Gran Reserva Colchagua ($16) 92 This is a beautiful Carmenee, concentrated and silky smooth. The nose reveals black raspberry fruit and notes of chocolate and toasted oak that are mirrored on the palate. The wine is fresh and rich with well integrated oak and a lingering finish. An extremely good value!
Apaltagua 2009 Grial Apalta Valley Colchagua ($75) 91 Grial is the biggest of the Apaltagua Carménère, showing a dark fruited perfume. Like the Envero, it’s silky and layered, but it’s more about power than elegance with an unctuous, slightly gritty texture. A big wine that requires food to match.
Calcu 2012 Carménère Reserva Colchagua ($14) 88 This is a rich, fruit forward wine. It’s softly textured with good depth and freshness. The Calcu Carménère delivers good quality in a very reasonably priced wine.
Maquis 2012 Carménère Colchagua ($19) 89 Dark plum with blueberry and spice aromatic overtones. The Maquis Carménère is an excellent wine that shows fresh fruit, good structure, and nice depth of flavor. It’s an honest, straightforward wine that offers a lot for the money.
Apaltagua, Calcu, and Maquis wines are imported by Global Vineyard Importers of Berkeley CA.