Chile’s Versatile Carmenere: Perfect for your Thanksgiving Table

by Liz Caskey on November 23, 2009

On Saturday, I read in the Wall Street Journal Dorothy Jaiter and Josh Breche’s thoughts on Chile’s unusual wine varietal, now a flagship grape, Carmenere, as being a risky grape for Chile. I think the real issue was that the examples of Carmenere that the authors tried were not totally ripe (or so it sounded from the “green pepper” description). Carmenere most definitely is a grape that is either ripe or its not–and even when it is, it’s a total chamelon in the bottle and glass. In this post, I want to lead you all into the world of mature, juicy Carmeneres primarily from Colchagua, where the grape turns into a silky little number with earthy notes that can go with anything from your Thanksgiving turkey to roasted veggies, hummus, rabbit, salmon, and even pasta. Versatile, in a word.

First a little intro to the grape variety and place. Carmenere thrives in hot weather valleys like the Maipo, Cachapoal, and especially Colchagua (pronounced col-cha-gwah) all 1-2 hours south of Santiago. The fertile, green Central Valley extends south and north a bowling alley between the Andes and Coastal mountains. For centuries, Colchagua has been an important historical and agriculture player in Chile’s history; a land of haciendas and huasos, cowboys. Here, rustic traditions and modernity co-exist harmoniously. Workers crush grapes at swish, state-of-the-art wineries and arrive home to still make their daily bread in a mud oven.

Colchagua is a hot wine valley dedicated primarily to the production of red wines, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Syrah, and small quantities of Malbec. Although there are a handful of whites grown towards the coast of Lolol, it’s simply too hot for white wines. Like us humans, the grapes get sunburned. Unlike other wine valleys in Chile that run along the foothills of the Andes, Colchagua extends from east to west along the folds of the coastal mountains. As wineries near the Pacific, the maritime influence increases, usually in the form of dense-as-pea-soup morning fog. This means that winemakers looking for cooler temperatures for their Syrah, Viognier, or even Cabernet, head west to microregions like Peralillo and Marchigue.

Colchagua has also become a wine paradise for Carmenere. Carmenere’s problem both in pre-phylloxera France and, up until a few years ago in Chile, was that it never reached peak maturity and tasted “green”. Green as in chewing on green pepper or a twig–not exactly a desirable trait in a wine. In Colchagua, Carmenere bunches sun themselves until the vid almost becomes dormant and the tannins are ripe. They are the last grape to be harvested; those stragglers hanging out until the onset of the first autumn rains. Carmenere thrives with sun. It’s a totally different grape (and wine) than the austere, under ripe version that grew in Europe. It’s expressive, charming, and silky. And in Colchagua, it has found a wonderful home.

Carmenere is all about team work. It is rare to find a 100% Carmenere. As one winemaker put it, “Would you eat an entire plate of fresh chilies as your main course?” It’s all about leveraging its assets. As a classic Bordeaux varietal, Carmenere combines beautifully with Bordelaise cousins like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Petit Verdot.  It is an earthy wine that can hint of smoke; roasted peppers; spices like cumin and ground coriander seeds; fresh black plums and figs. Its mouth feel is seductive with soft tannins and a medium body that make it a versatile, food friendly compliment. While it can tango with hummus as a perfect tapas wine, it can also hold its own with grilled steak too.

Let’s explore some wine and food pairings that really explode these Carmeneres’ flavor. In fact, I think Carmenere is the perfect wine pairing for a Thanksgiving table since since the turkey and earthy vegetables will tango well with the wine. All these wines are readily available in the US.

 

Food & Wine Recommendations

 

US$10-14

 

Montgras Carmenere Reserva 2007 US$11

Let this baby open a little bit as the first whiff may be an oak bomb. Once open, you will start getting the ripe fruit that makes Colchagua Carménère so loveable—black cherry, plum, tobacco. The nose is not a tease—the mouth feel delivers a slinky texture that hangs out and gives more fruit. No hard edges with a nice finish. For the price, why are you not running out to get this right now?

 

Grilled figs wrapped in smoked bacon, drizzled with aged balsamic

 

Viu Manent Carmenere Reserva 2007 US$10

Pour this and the first aroma that may strike you is mocha. It’s a bonbon! Behind that is more dark fruit like dried cherries and prunes. In the mouth, this wine is voluptuous and rich. It’s the kind of wine I want to drink on a cold winter day to warm up. Smooth, simple, and disappears easily over lunch.

Bruschetta with roasted red peppers and Brie cheese

 

US$15-20

 

Bisquertt, Casa La Joya Gran Reserva Carmenere 2007 US$17

One of the most traditional wineries in Colchagua, the house style produces ripe and decadent wines. This Carménère is like inhaling the aroma of fresh blackberries just picked off the bush—sweet and even a little floral. In the mouth, it’s big, juicy, and delivers more dark fruit. In fact, the best comparison is biting into a gorgeous black plum—so plump that a dribble escapes down your chin. Soft, feminine, and ripe for drinking now.

 

Hummus and baked pita triangles

 

Apaltagua, Envero 2007 US$15

Coming from the horseshoe-shaped micro valley of Apalta where many of the valley’s Grand Dames are born, Apaltagua’s Carménère vines are over fifty years old and yield wines with remarkably round tannins. This is a wonderful example of a mature, lush Carménère combined with a little more aging in French oak. With 90% Carménère and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, the bouquet is handful of black fruit like blackberries and plums with some spicy notes. In the mouth, the tannins are rounded with a velvety feel and the black fruit component is played up and contrasted by the barrel. Very easy to drink.

Roasted butternut squash soup with fried sage leaves

 

US$25+

 

Casa Silva, Microterroir de los Lingues, Carmenere 2006 US$45

The top-of-the-line Carmenere from old school Casa Silva, their wines are consistent and good value for money. Their property located in the area known as Los Lingues was mapped for this project to best manage the finicky personality of Carménère. It is subtle yet straightforward. Think black truffle meets mineral with black cherry and anise. It’s a rich, fleshy wine that is pure nectar to drink. The dark color will certainly stain your teeth. As I learned the hard way, not advised before a photo shoot.

Moroccan lamb and prune tangine with couscous

 

Montes, Purple Angel 2005 US$45-60 (shop around)

If you are lucky enough to find a bottle of Purple Angel, please do me a favor and buy it. They make very little of it and allocate the majority. Made with grapes from their western Colchagua estate in Marchigue, great care is put into making this “baby”, 92% Carmenere and 8% Petit Verdot. It’s an unusual wine. The nose is austere until it opens up—and honestly, I think this needs more time in the bottle yet. There is an herbaceous note, common in this grape, a lot of oak (Montes style), and delicate chocolate aromas. The texture is plush and that little dose of Petit Verdot is just enough to add a kick at the end. Very interesting.

Grilled steak and roasted potatoes with thyme

{ 3 comments }

Margaret November 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Nice piece Liz… my only comment is about the WSJ article- I think what they were getting at when they said “risky” was that they were finding over-oaked Carmeneres that lost their personality and ran the risk of turning into “some generic red”… so the problem is the risk of losing its own very charming characteristics…
Love your Carmenere & turkey suggestions! That’s what will be in MY glass this Thanksgiving!

Liz Caskey November 26, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Yes, I agree with you! I wish I was drinking Carmenere today on T-giving. This year since we’re in Puerto Natales/Patagonia turkey day is looking more like lamb and Syrah tonight. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!! Thanks to you guys for reading and sharing. Love it.

Margaret November 27, 2009 at 3:30 am

Just got home from turkey dinner at California Cantina. Fun place, but they ‘ll have to work on their Thanksgiving skills… The best part was the Leyda Carmenere we ordered–paired like a charm!
Hope you enjoy your lamb and Syrah…

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