An ancient and noble variety, Carmenere is believed to be the progenitor of Cabernet Franc and therefore the Cabernet Sauvignon grape with known origins in Bordeaux's Medoc Region and wide plantations throughout the Graves Region. Prior to these facts, the Romans were instrumental in disseminating the variety from its origins in Spain to Italy and eventually to its heartland on the Left Bank . Considered the sixth member of the original vaunted Bordeaux red varieties, it was used primarily for blending purposes there, adding deep crimson colours and aromas to wines much like that other unsung variety Petit Verdot. Despite its aristocratic heritage, Carmenere's cantankerous nature as a beast of a vine in terms of its coulure (poor fruit set), late ripening and high methoxypyrazine content saw it fall out of favour with vignerons, especially in light of the cool, wet spring climates associated with this south-western region of France.
Now to the story. A petulant variety prone to a range of debilitating conditions, our noble charge is spirited away in the dead of night by foresighted, enterprising migrants prior to the outbreak of the dreaded phylloxera plague. Devastating vineyards throughout France and Europe from the late 1860's, vines didn't stand a chance. Once the ravages of this mass-murdering root louse had passed, Carmenere was presumed to have emulated the way of the dinasaurs, obituaries flowed in tribute. What vines found were too difficult or too damaged to replant with vignerons opting for its hardier fellow Bordeaux varieties that would give them a return on their efforts rather than more misery and heartache.
Fast forward to the 1990's and Chile. After being presumed lost and forgotten to viticultural history for almost a century and a half, our irascible Carmenere was discovered, thriving in the warm, phylloxera-free valleys of Central Chile amongst other Bordeaux varieties, most notably the hard working Merlot with which it was bended there. Indeed, Chilean winemakers believed it to be a variant of Merlot, the similarities between both vines and leaves were remarkable despite their very distinctive flavour profiles. In 1994 through DNA testing, French ampelographer Professor Jean-Michel Bousiquot revealed to the wine world that the earlier ripening grape of the two was in fact Carmenere. Often described as Merlot on steroids, the favourable Chilean growing conditions had produced a deep, dark and rich wine with smoky, earthy aromas and flavours of black plums, licorice and mocha.
The story now had come full circle, there was a happy ending to this epic saga, the opera was over. Carmenere had been rediscovered 11,700 kilometres away and was now officially recognised as Chile's own separate varietal, its signature wine. Every grape has its own fascinating history, Carmenere's probably the most remarkable of them all. That kind of story is one of the reasons why I enjoy drinking wine.
Australia's history with the Carmenere variety is very recent. Cuttings from Chile were imported in the late 1990's with the first vines planted in 2002 after the regulatory quarantine period. The Olssen family's Bass Hill vineyard in the Clare Valley had one of Australia's first plantings of Carmenere. This vintage is its second and the only single varietal to be bottled in Australia. Bright crimson purple in colour - the name carmin actually means crimson in French - with a violet tinge on the glass rim. I get red currents, dried herbs, green peppers and smoke on the nose with a hint of bittersweet chocolate. It's fairly low key and medium bodied unlike its richer, spicier, black fruit Chilean counterparts. Fresh, succulent red cherries, prune juice and light tannins on the palate with an aftertaste of granulated coffee. Had I not known this was a Carmenere, I would have thought, its Chilean comrade Merlot but sans the steroids, had made an appearance ! To paraphrase Miles in Sideways, "this is a well made but ultimately non-distinct wine, there is nothing wrong here, it just wasn't a transcendent wine experience". Nevertheless, kudos to the Olssen family for pioneering this variety in Australia.
Source: Retail Purchase. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: Screwcap. Rating: 86 Points.
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