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As those of us who are professionally involved in wine clearly understand, our business is in a state of constant evolution.  What’s “in” and what’s “out” never remains stagnant.  Part of the industry’s appeal is the fact that there always seem to be emerging regions, that previously obscure grape varieties or new vintages are available to discover.  It’s the nature of the contemporary wine scene and it’s inescapable: the attraction of categories that have strong commercial viability but remain largely unknown.

In fact, following the fortune of these various unheralded wine types and sniffing out their fashion potential are two major prerequisites to driving excitement among the wine buying public – our clientele.  The challenge is to be one step ahead and the great opportunity is that a little study makes this game not only profitable, but also relatively easy to win.  The reason is that quality wine rarely arises out of some marketing driven boardroom concept, but is an authentic agricultural product requiring research, capital investment and a thorough understanding of potential markets.  In other words, we can taste what’s real but not yet popular and we can also be sure that while styles may change consumers generally come around to embracing authenticity.  It doesn’t pay to be cynical because today product selection is anything but casual and, at any rate, is no longer so easily manipulated.  To a significant segment of the buying public wine is deeply meaningful.  In the same way that there are individuals who give serious consideration to the food they eat, a growing number of consumers at least partly define themselves by which wines they choose.

We can see this in our recent history with affordable red wines.  First there was Merlot, then Australian Shiraz experienced off the charts growth for a few years, now it’s Argentine Malbec’s turn.  What caused these shifts and what determined why these categories have enjoyed such meteoric popularity?  First and foremost is the all important QPR (Quality Price Relationship): the wines, at one point virtually unknown entities, tasted so good in comparison to other more established competitors that they eventually achieved household name status.  Critical to the process, each first developed an insider’s exotic aura that only increased their appeal; in the early going you had to know a little something about the characteristics of Shiraz or Malbec to order them.  And a major plus: since they hadn’t yet attained fame, producers couldn’t overcharge, so the reputation that both developed for outstanding value was actually justified. 

Why then is Aussie Shiraz not nearly as popular as it was only a few years ago?  What changed?  Simple agricultural and business reality: popularity stimulated a frenzy of planting, brands proliferated and then consolidated, decisions were made and the same wines that once tasted so concentrated and spicy in a few years time became herbal and diluted.  Our recent blind tastings confirm this.

Because the wheel always turns though, and one of our challenges is to see a bit around the corner to determine what represents particularly good value before the whole world discovers it  (causing the price to jump), I am focused on Chilean Carmenere.  Not an exact science, but to me it represents the next wave, ready to take off, maybe not immediately but somewhere on the horizon.  Why?  The same factor that propelled Shiraz and Malbec forward: the wines simply taste too delicious relative to their cost.  Eventually everyone will catch one.

Why Carmenere though and why now?  This once undiscovered Bordeaux grape variety transplanted to Chile in the mid-19th Century and now essentially only grown there, has a direct sensual appeal when it’s done right, a chocolately berry quality with a signature velvety texture that I find irresistible.  As Chilean vintners have learned to understand the grape (it was only 15 years ago that they realized it was not just a late ripening clone of Merlot but should actually be harvested a full 4 to 6 weeks afterwards to express its true flavors), many of the wines that are coming out now represent stunning value. 

Carmenere is a temperamental vine that requires a very dry spring, and matures best when autumn weather permits ripe phenols and even encourages a small percentage of the grapes in the mix to be dehydrated.  It thrives during sunny, but not scorchingly hot, summer days with cool evenings that permit delaying the harvest.  Soils should be somewhat water retentive to maximize leaf growth and photosynthesis. 

Since the best producers have been planting Carmenere in more suitable spots and are now handling it in a customized way, instead of treating it like Merlot, many of the wines on the market now express a beautiful rich black fruit that they lacked when companies first started bottling the grape as a separate varietal in the late 199Os.  The grape is unerringly opaque when young (with significantly more anthocyanin concentrations compared to Cabernet) and has an aroma that ranges from minty to aggressively green if harvested from excessively leaf shaded fruit or from vineyards that are overcropped.  When done right though, Carmenere is developing a niche as the Bordeaux variety that is less tannic than Cabernet, but spicier than Merlot, with the same chocolate notes that have propelled Malbec’s appeal.  In fact, recent tastings point to the conclusion that at a moderate price point, Carmenere may give Malbec a run for its money in the market – maybe not this year, maybe not next, but if you’re an adventurous red wine lover you will discover the grape and judge for yourself. 

In the meantime I’ve been following Carmenere’s development, tasting at every opportunity, here, there and in Chile, and have developed a working picture not only of recent vintages but of the regionality and the styles that the various climatic zones within each of the major valleys impart.  Overall the grape represents a bit less than 1O% of Chile’s total acreage (although a far lesser percentage than that of its wine production, since a good deal of Carmenere is blended, to delicious effect, with other Bordeaux varieties and with Syrah).  One third is planted in Colchagua, divided into the Valley’s eastern Andean zone, which is cool in climate, the considerably warmer Apalta and Los Robles sub-zones in the heart of the Valley, and the coastal Marchiguie, which is also cool.  The Maule Valley, a hundred miles south and Chile’s largest region, has 25% of the country’s Carmenere acreage, while Cachapoal (and particularly its Peumo sub-zone in the hills) within the greater Rapel Valley, is also noted for fine quality fruit.  Maipo, the prestige Cabernet zone bordering Santiago in the country’s center, has less than 1O% of Chile’s Carmenere under vine.  Based on a sampling of over 1OO Carmenere over the past year, the zones in the center of these valleys tend to produce the softest wines, those in the western coastal end the richest, and those abutting the Andes to the east appear to have the most edgy spice.

The best part is that the opportunities are endless.  Last year Chile exported only an estimated 45,OOO cases of Carmenere to the US (out of a total of close to 7 million cases).  This to me qualifies as an undiscovered grape.

These tasting notes and recommendations of outstanding value wines are grouped by region of origin, which can be confusing in Chile.  In some cases wineries will choose to use a very general name which is famous (such as Rapel Valley) even though the fruit that they are using comes solely from a specified sub-zone.  In other cases a sub-zone is mentioned on the label (Peumo, for example) to the exclusion of the larger regional designation of which it is part.  All of this is still sorting out, but there are Chilean wine experts I’ve spoken with who believe that the general regional names (indicating which of the several parallel transverse valleys the grapes originate in) are less reliable indicators of style than whether the grapes come specifically from coastal, central or eastern Andean vineyards.

Maule Valley
Terra Noble “Reserva” 2OO7  This expresses the meaty side of the grape, with raspberry, floral and hot spice notes rounding out the flavors.  Everything you could want: smooth in texture, with bright berries and some terroir-driven complexity.  $16

Colchagua Valley
“Bicycle” 2OO8
This has an aroma of fresh crushed berries, very bright and fruity, with floral undertones.  It’s lush and creamy on the palate with extra dark fruit, a molasses-like concentration, but soft tannins.  $12

“Vision” 2OO7
With cocoa, rosemary and mint on the nose, this wine, made from biodynamically harvested grapes, has a subtlety that is rare for Carmenere; there are leafy herb flavor tones and a lush peppery spearmint grace note to soften the ripe perfumed black fruits.  $15

Montes Alpha 2OO7
From the coastal Marchiguie sub-zone, this wine shows violet and fresh red berry scents, along with an appealing, somewhat jammy with pepper sensation on the finish.  $24

Santa Rita “Medalla Real” 2OO7
Very ripe, perfumed floral berry scents, with a touch of blackberry jam on the palate, highly concentrated, with a powerful kick of heat in the finish.  $16

Rapel Valley
Marques de Casa Concha, Peumo Vineyard, 2OO7
A wonderfully supple Carmenere from the Peumo sub-zone of the Cachapoal district, this debut effort from Concha y Toro has a ripe blueberry scent with very juicy black fruit concentration on the palate and a full rich mouth feel.  Major league in every way, there’s a really nice polished feel to the texture.  $2O

Maipo Valley
Vina Morande “Reserva” 2OO7
A fabulous example at a giveaway price: smoky and mocha-accented with dark berry fruit flavors and a touch of sweet spice.  There’s a whiff of fennel emanating from the glass to add style points.  $13

Central Valley
Odjfell Vineyards “Armador” 2OO7
This one is from blended fruit bought from cooler climate valleys and it’s extremely fine, with plummy, easy textured, ripe fruit balanced off beautifully with an intense coffee note.  $12

Aconcagua Valley
Errazuriz “Don Maximiano” 2OO7
Hickory-smoke accented, juicy black fruit defines the style of this wow wine; with hot cocoa-like spices and a rich green minty accent, this originates in a windswept valley north of Santiago that is not home to significant quantities of Carmenere but shows the potential of growing this grape in a zone that combines brilliant luminosity with cooler night temperatures.  $25

Fine in the blush of youth – but does it age?
There were a number of opportunities I’ve recently had to taste multiple vintages of some of Chile’s finest Carmenere bottlings and the answer is: Yes!  Here are two extremely fine Carmenere that are pricier but worth cellaring.

Concha y Toro “Terrunyo” Peumo Vineyard “Block 27”
This is Chile’s largest producer and they are living proof that big is not bad in any sense of the word.  Their wines represent quality at each price point.  Concha controls about 8 to 9% of all the country’s Carmenere.  Especially at the level of Terrunyo, they are delivering spectactular concentration and, even with a retail price in the $4O range, the value is outstanding.  The winery decided to focus on Carmenere as a variety about 7 or 8 years ago and they settled on the Peumo zone of Cachapoal, largely because of the presence there of old vine Carmenere that they felt had low enough yields and sufficient concentration to make something special.  Peumo sits in the shadows of the coastal range so it is a bit cooler, especially in the evenings.  This permits a prolonged ripening cycle, often extending harvest into the third week of May.  Soils are deep water retentive alluvial clay loams that permit minimal drip irrigation and smaller balanced vines.  Launched in the 2OOO vintage, Concha’s winemaker gives Terrunyo plenty of aeration during maturation to soften the texture, racking every 3 months from the predominantly new French oak barrels that are used.  $38

2OO6 vintage A hyper-concentrated wine aged in 8O% new French oak barrels for 17 months, this late harvested beauty is powerfully smoky and mocha-like, with a complex mix of earthy, leafy, blueberry tones.  There’s a leathery, pipe tobacco scent that wafts from the glass after it’s been opened for 3O minutes.  The wine’s secret is the 2% of Petite Sirah that is blended in.  Rich and luscious, with supple tannins and lingering white pepper over black fruit, it is very sensual in style and destined to be a long ager.

2OO5 vintage Even better than the 2OO6, this ages for 19 months in barrels that are 78% new.
It has a slightly floral, grapey, vanilla scent, with thick, velvety crushed blackberry fruit and strong but ripe tannins lingering into the long finish.  Super ripe and super rich, this one has an extra dimension that sets apart even in exalted company.

2OO4 vintage This vintage was slightly green and slightly porty at the same time, with a baked dried fruit on the nose.  On the palate it bursts with fruit and finishes with more plum like flavor and black pepper on the finish.  Like each of the Terrunyo vintages, the structure is lowish acid, strong extraction, with powerful tannins and alcohol.  This might still be a bit in a shell. 

2OO3 vintage A floral, earthy, mint leaf scented wine, with blackberry flavors in abundance, and lingering earthy, chocolate and toast richness on the palate.  Aged in barrel for 22 months and still youthful, still delicious but promising more glory over a 5 to 7 year span.

Casa Lapostolle “Clos Apalta” Apalta (Colchagua Valley)
While technically not a Carmenere, this flagship wine shows off the grape’s potential as a partner in a blend.  Carmenere is always the largest proportion (in the 4O% range) of this magnificent estate vineyard blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  The vines are shielded from extreme sunlight by mountains and are south facing, producing deep rooted vines that ripen slowly.  The grapes are fermented in oak vats, aged for 24 months in all new French barrels (as befits its lineage, owned by the family that also owns Grand Marnier Liqueur) and was the wine that originally focused world attention on Chile, based on spectacular accolades in the American wine press.  Not inexpensive, it’s a bargain at the $75 current price range.  Starting with the 2OO2 vintage, all the grapes for this blend have been de-stemmed by hand, a costly procedure but one of the reasons that the winemaker attributes to its suppleness even in youth.
2OO5 vintage This has a delicate herb and berry character on the nose.  It’s very lush and creamy, with vibrant blackberry, dark chocolate and thick luscious anise-accented espresso on the palate.  Still a baby.

2OO1 vintage At this stage the winery was still listing the blend as “8O% Carmenere/Merlot”.  This is quite floral, with a very ripe, silky texture and brilliant soft red fruit.  There’s more of an herbal leafy edge to add flavor interest and the finish is very long.  It’s a wine of finesse rather than power.

2OOO vintage Best wine of all, from a cool year, it’s still opaque in color, with vanilla, wood smoke and leafy, bell pepper (although there’s no Cabernet here) and mint notes.  On the palate: dark super ripe fruits, finishing with toffee and caramel.  The tannins are resolved but the wine is holding together beautifully.  It tastes like it has at least another 1O years.

So whether you are looking at value priced products, the mid-range tier or something memorable for the cellar, Carmenere is available and at a better price than much of the competition.  This is one those sweet spots and it’s our chance to introduce it to customers and capitalize on the pricing anomaly.  Not everyone agrees, obviously, but in my mind there’s no better QPR that you’ll find today.