Wine: the tricky Carménère - a difficult and unforgiving grape

Twenty years ago some wine makers discovered their grapes were Carménère not, as they thought, Merlot – and so began many experiments with this challenging variety

Some 20 years ago, Jean- Michel Boursiquot, Prof of ampelography (the study of grapevines) in the University of Montpelier in France, was examining vineyards belonging to the Chilean wine producer Carmen.

After consulting with colleagues, he came to the conclusion that some of the Merlot vines he had inspected were in fact Carménère, a completely different Bordeaux grape variety. “When I first told them,” he told me, “their faces were blank; they didn’t want to know; at that time everybody wanted Merlot. However, they accepted our findings and began reclassifying some of their vines.” It turned out a lot of Chile’s “Merlot” was in fact Carménère, and so began a long period of experimentation with this little known grape.

Initial trials were very encouraging. The first wine released, as Grand Vidure Caberne, in 1994 by Carmen won two gold medals; another, made by Santa Ines, was confiscated by the authorities as they had no listing for Carménère in their vineyards. Those who tasted the wine were impressed. The promising start proved false however, as producers spent the next two decades trying to master Carménère.

It turned out to be a difficult and unforgiving grape. It is one of the last to ripen, a factor that may have caused the Bordelais to turn their backs on it a century ago. It is prone to coulure or flower shatter. The vine is very vigorous and will produce excess leaf cover if over-watered. According to Sebastian Labbé, head winemaker at Viña Carmen, it is important to expose the grape clusters to light and sun.


In early years many of the wines were very herbaceous with green tannins due to high levels of methoxypyrazines, a compound found in a number of wines. Isobutyl methoxypyrazine (IBMP) gives a flavour described as “green peppers”, “tomato leaf” or “grassy”. In small quantities it can be quite attractive, but over a certain level it becomes overpowering and unpleasant. Some of the early efforts certainly fell into this category, and gave the variety a bad reputation. To compound the error, some winemakers began harvesting over-ripe grapes that they aged in new oak, leading to some very big clumsy wines that still had green tannins. Labbé believes that Chile has now found the best soils for Carménère – those that naturally limit vegetative growth while still keeping the canopy of leaves active.

Recently I attended a conference on Carménère, held to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The tasting included eight wines, six from different regions of Chile and one each from Washington State and Italy. It was an impressive line-up and proved Carménère has come of age. It also showed the different valleys of Chile can produce very different styles of wine, depending on the local climate. The wines varied from elegant and piquant to rich and powerful; there was very little of those green herbaceous flavours that bedeviled earlier efforts. All had fully ripe fruit, and some showed real complexity. I was pleased to learn that all of the wines retailed for less than €16.

It could be that Carménère’s future is as part of a blend. This is generally what happens with the Bordeaux varieties. As Carménère has low acidity, it matches well with the more structured Cabernet Sauvignon.

According to Boursiquot, Carménère is an ancient cross between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet; it is a half-sibling of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and also related to Fer, a grape variety found in southwest France. The majority, not surprisingly is found in Chile. However apparently China also has large plantings, where it is known as Cabernet Garnischt. It also turns out that Chile is not the only country to mistakenly plant Carménère; it was recently discovered that some recently-planted Cabernet Franc grown in Italy was in fact Carménère.

Apparently pure Carménère sells well in South America, where Chile is admired for its quality wines, but less so in Ireland and the UK. The Chileans are keen to establish it as their flagship variety, like Malbec in Argentina, Pinotage in South Africa and Shiraz in Australia. “Carménère is part of who we are and part of our country,” according to a speaker at the conference. There was certainly a sense of pride and a level of determination amongst participants. Perhaps it is time we gave Carménère another chance?