Chile’s Carmenere

Have you already forgotten your New Year Resolutions?  Well I haven’t!  My first “Resolution Wine” of the the new year is Carmenere from Chile.  If you haven’t had any yet then it’s certainly time to try some now.

Carmenere is quickly becoming Chile’s Malbec.  By that I mean that as Malbec has come to define Argentina, so too will Carmenere come to define Chile.  The reason is simple – in addition to the terrific Cabernet Sauvignon we get from Chile, Carmenere holds a more unique place in the world of wine.

In France, it’s native land, it never achieved the greatness of a standalone varietal.  It was virtually always just used as part of blending in Bordeaux.  Not so in Chile.  Carmenere found its way there in the 1800’s with other French varietals and it began to thrive.  However it was often mistaken for a local “Merlot” – until some testing in the mid 1990’s nobody really knew what it was.  And the Chilean “Merlot” that was rather unusual finally found its place.

Chile is now the only place in the world that is widely growing Carmenere – and making wines that have dramatically become a uniquely Chilean entry into the world wine scene.  What can you expect?  In an earlier post I wrote “it’s got a dark and fruity flavor with an almost smokey character that to me is like a rustic version of Merlot.”  Hey, I stand by that!  But let’s get a little deeper.

It’s a deep ruby red that seems to glow in the glass. When I sip a Carmenere I usually find a dense black cherry flavor with hints of spice and just a touch of mocha.  It’s that spice that makes it more rustic and, to me, unique to the grape.  In some of the wines it’s a definite peppery quality; in others more like cloves or allspice.  But, guess what – there’s no need to get all caught up in any of these subtleties if you just want a juicy, tasty, accessible, everyday glass of red in your hand.  And that’s the particular reason I am coming to love Carmenere.  It’s got really good acidity but isn’t very tannic meaning this is a wine that is great all by itself to sip and perfect with a burger or just about any thing off the grill.  It’s also a wine to reach for with some more challenging dishes like Mexican food.

And the best part is that it is really – and I mean really – affordable. Most of the Carmenere you’ll find on the shelves is well under $20.  How good is that! There is also highly regarded, costly bottles too – but let’s walk before we run.

Here are some to try that are pretty widely available.  If you don’t see any at your wine store just ask them to get some for you – you’ll be doing both of you a favor.  Let’s sip!

Every Days Sips
2014 Root 1 Carmenere $10

2015 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carmenere $10

2013 Chono Carmenere Single Vineyard $12

2014 Casas del Bosque Reserva Carmenere $14

2011 Montes Alpha Carmenere $20

2014 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere $20

NOTE: I you want to learn a lot more about the wines of Chile you can visit the official site here.

A Taste of Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of Grapes.  Oops that sounds too sexist.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the Reigning Monarch of grapes!  Better?

It’s the Reigning Monarch not only because it is the most widely planted grape for quality wine in the world but because it is a commanding presence. The vine is well traveled and hearty and it plays a major role in the winemaking history, culture and economics, particularly of France, the USA, Chile, Australia, and to some extent, Italy, and it influences the tastes of the world.  What makes it so commanding?

Let’s start with Taste.  Cabernet from the US, Chile and Australia tend to be bold and muscular.  Full bodied and full flavored, they usually lead with vibrant dark fruit flavors, which can be rather intensely focused in higher quality young wines.  The “Old World” Cabs and blends of Bordeaux are also lushly flavorful but the fruitiness is not as dominant.  Instead  there is often a counterbalance that is more a taste of the terroir which may remind you of mushroom or cedar.

Black currant, blueberry and blackberry are the fruit flavors that are typically most pronounced yet you will also find some wines whose taste might bring to mind black cherries.  But it’s not all about the fruit.  Cabernet also may have characteristic flavors of green olives, bell pepper, graphite, cedar, mint and eucalyptus, even coffee or tobacco.  It is one of the beautiful things about Cabernet that the taste is layered and complex.

Then there is the impact of the barrel aging and the winemaker’s philosophy. The use of French oak barrels can often add a note of vanilla, while  American oak brings forth more woody, toasty flavors.  And the balance of new versus old barrels and the amount time the wine is aged in them is all part of the winemakers art.  Sure, there are some simple Cabs on the shelves, but you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy the complexity and nuance of this wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon is tannic and can even be a bit harsh if very young.  That’s one of the reasons that most of the Cabernet you’ll buy has spent some aging time in barrel and bottle before release.  It’s also the reason why other wine varieties are frequently blended in with it… to soften those tannins in addition to also adding complexity.  The great wines of the Medoc in Bordeaux are not 100% Cabernet, usually containing some Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and/or Malbec.  Even in the US, it only has to have 75% Cabernet in the bottle to be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon. (see my post on Reading the Wine Label).

But it is that tannin that helps make Cabernet the wine that is so sought after and prized around the world because tannin lets it evolve and change over time.  It is that ability which gives Cab its undisputed place in the wine world.  wine_bottles_wide_view While a youthful California Cabernet may have fruit that leaps out at the first sip, after a few years that power becomes wrapped in a velvet glove, giving way to suppleness and elegance.  While a pricey Bordeaux may seem a bit lean and tight when its released, some time spent aging will bring out the richness and depth – and best of the best can drink well for years.

Cabernet is a conundrum – big, bold and powerful as well as elegant, refined and beautiful.  A pretty interesting balance of characteristics for the Reigning Monarch of the world of wine.

Everyday Sip
2013 BR Cohn Silver Label $20
Cassis and cherry cola.  Have a sip and listen to the Doobie Bros.

2013 Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon Max Riserva $15
Valle de Aconcagua, Chile.  Black currant and spice.  Drink it.

2013 J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Oaks Paso Robles $15
Always there when you want it. Ripe and drinkable

Guest Sip
2013 Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $25
A go-to Cab that always pleases.  Ready to drink.

2012 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $45
Soft and very well structured so you can drink it now or later.  And it’s from organically farmed grapes.

2012 Chateau Talbot Saint Julien $55
I haven’t had this vintage but here’s what Parker had to say:
“A juicy style of wine, Talbot’s 2012 has a dense ruby/purple color, plenty of black and red currant fruit, a touch of plum, soft tannin and a spicy, medium-bodied mouthfeel. It is excellent, with no hollowness or astringency. This is a very successful wine in this vintage and should drink well for 15-20 years.” – Robert M. Parker, Jr., #218, Apr 2015

Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 $60
Consistent winner.

Splurge Sip
Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 $100
I get this on allocation but you may find it on an auction site.  Fabulous Cabernet.  Big and bold fruit with amazing layers of flavor.  Needs a few years to do it full justice.

Heading South – Argentina and Chile

Are you looking for good value when you shop for wine?  If you are then one of the best aisles in the wine store is the one with the wines of Argentina and Chile. They are probably best known for some prominent reds – from Argentina it’s Malbec and from Chile it’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

Let’s start with Argentina – cue the tango music (I see that great scene from Scent of a Woman with Pacino – hoo-ah! Here’s a link for you to enjoy Scent of a Woman Tango

The world owes Argentina a high five for Malbec.  This was a grape that basically was used in the Bordeaux blend and, except for the French region of Cahors, there wasn’t much attention being paid to it.  But Argentina embraced it and the inky dark, concentrated and highly drinkable Malbec literally exploded onto the world wine stage.  These are really good wines that have become an everyday staple for me. I love their versatility and I love the price!  They’re a terrific match with grilled meats or to just sit back and sip.  But Argentina is more than Malbec, there’s very nice Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelves and more and more Syrah and Bonarda among the reds. There’s a white wine called Torrontes that is fresh, floral and tasty as well as some Califonia-esque Chardonnay.

Chile is like Bordeaux transplanted to a more predictable climate.  Chilean Cabernet is definitely “new world” in it’s fruit driven style and you don’t have to wait to enjoy it. But it also strikes me as a bit more earthy than California or Australia.  So there remains a hint of “old world” traditionalism that seems to come through.  Then there is Carmenere.  It just might be that Chile will be the rescuer of Carmenere.  This is another somewhat ignored grape of Bordeaux and the south of France that is getting a lot of attention in Chile, while in France the vines are being pulled out and replaced with more well-known varietals.  So Carmenere may become as ubiquitous for Chile as Malbec has for Argentina.  Try some… it’s got a dark and fruity flavor with an almost smokey character that to me is like a rustic version of Merlot.  And the Chilean climate, which is a lot closer to California’s than France’s, is ideally suited to lots of wine varieties.  Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay – are all are being grown there.

While I am sure that the wine producers of both Chile and Argentina would prefer it otherwise, these are generally wines that carry modest prices and deliver a lot of bang for the buck.  I’m getting psyched just writing this so I think I’ll pop over to the wine store and pick up a few to have on hand.  Here are some I like that you may want to try:

Everyday Sip
2013 Susana Balbo Crios Torrontes $14
“I’ll have a glass of white.”

2013 Altos los Hormigas Malbec $11
Simple and straightforward.

2012 Terrazas Reserva Malbec $20
Consistently my personal favorite Malbec.

La Posta Tinto $14
A “field blend” of Malbec, Syrah and Bonarda that’s ideal to have around the house.  Cheeseburger wine!

2012 Norton Privada $20
Always yummy and full bodied Malbec, Cab and Merlot blend.

2011 Montes Alpha Carmenere $18
A little pricey but a flavor burst

2012 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Calachagual Valley $17
Ripe and ready – my go to Chilean Cab.