The Carménère grape is a wine grape variety originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France, where it was used to produce deep red wines and occasionally used for blending purposes in the same manner as Petit Verdot.
A member of the Cabernet family of grapes, the name "Carménère" originates from the French word for crimson (carmin) which refers to the brilliant crimson colour of the autumn foliage prior to leaf-fall. The grape is also known as Grande Vidure, a historic Bordeaux synonym, although current European Union regulations prohibit Chilean imports under this name into the European Union. Along with Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit verdot, Carménère is considered part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, France.
Now rarely found in France, the world's largest area planted with this variety is in Chile in South America, with more than 4,000 hectares (2006) cultivated in the Central Valley. As such, Chile produces the vast majority of Carménère wines available today and as the Chilean wine industry grows, more experimentation is being carried out on Carménère's potential as a blending grape, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Carménère is also grown in Italy's Eastern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions and in smaller quantities in the California and Walla Walla regions of the United States.
One of the most ancient European varieties, Carménère is thought to be the antecedent of other better-known varieties; some consider the grape to be "a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon." It is possible that the variety name is an alias for what is actually the Vidure, a local Bordeaux name for a Cabernet Sauvignon clone once thought to be the grape from which all red Bordeaux varieties originated.
There have also been suggestions that Carménère may be Biturica, a vine praised in ancient Rome and also the name by which the city of Bordeaux was known during that era. This ancient variety originated in Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal), according to Pliny the Elder; indeed, it is currently a popular blending variety with Sangiovese in Tuscany called "Predicato di Biturica"
The Carménère grape has known origins in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France and was also widely planted in the Graves until the vines were struck with oidium. It is almost impossible to find Carménère wines in France today, as a Phylloxera plague in 1867 nearly destroyed all the vineyards of Europe, afflicting the Carménère grapevines in particular such that for many years the grape was presumed extinct. When the vineyards were replanted, growers could not replant Carménère as it was extremely hard to find and more difficult to grow than other grape varieties common to Bordeaux. The region's damp, chilly spring weather gave rise to coulure, "a condition endemic to certain vines in climates which have marginal, sometimes cool, wet springs", which prevented the vine's buds from flowering. Yields were lower than other varieties and the crops were rarely healthy; consequently wine growers chose more versatile and less coulure-susceptible grapes when replanting the vines and Carménère planting was progressively abandoned.
A situation occurred in Italy when, in 1990, the Ca' del Bosco Winery acquired what they thought was Cabernet Franc vines from a French nursery. The growers noticed that the grapes were different from the traditional Cabernet Franc both in color and taste. They also noticed that the vines ripened earlier than Cabernet Franc would have. Other Italian wine regions also started to doubt the origin of these vines and it was finally established to be Carménère. Although, in Italy, the varietal is grown mainly in the northeast part of the country from Brescia to Friuli, it has only recently been entered into Italy's national catalog of vine varietals and thus "no district has yet requested the authorization to use it". Therefore, the wine "cannot be cultivated with its original name or specific vintage and the name cannot be used to identify the wine on the label with an IGT, DOC or a DOCG status assignment." Ca' del Bosco Winery names the wine it produces Carmenero. In 2007 the grape was authorised to be used in Italian DOC wines from Veneto (Arcole, Bagnoli di Sopra, Cori Benedettine del Padovano, Garda, Merlara, Monti Lessini, Riviera del Brento and Vicenza), Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Collio, or Collio Goriziano) and Sardinia (Alghero). Since a ministerial decree of 2009, producers of Piave DOC wines in 50 communes of the Province of Treviso, and 12 in the in the Province of Venice have been permitted where appropriate to specify the variety Carmenère on the wine label.
Viticulture and winemaking
Carménère favors a long growing season in moderate to warm climates. During harvest time and the winter period the vine fares poorly if it is introduced to high levels of rain or irrigation water. This is particularly true in poor-soil plantings where the vine would need more water. Over-watering during this period accentuates the herbaceous and green pepper characteristics of the grape. The grape naturally develops high levels of sugar before the tannins achieve ripeness. If grown in too hot a climate the resulting wine will have a high alcohol level and low balance. Carménère buds and flowers three to seven days later than Merlot and the yield is lower than that of the latter grape. The Carménère leaves turn to crimson before dropping.
Carménère is produced in wineries either as a single-variety wine(sometimes called a varietal wine), or as a blend usually with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and/or Merlot.
Distinction from Merlot
Differences between Carménère and Merlot grapesGenetic research has shown that Carménère may be distantly related to Merlot and the similarities in appearance have linked the two vines for centuries. Despite the similarities, there are some noticeable differences that aid the ampelographer in identifying the two vines. When young, Carménère leaves have a reddish hue underneath, while the leaves of Merlot are white. There are also slight differences in leaf shape with the central lobe of Merlot leaves being longer.Merlot ripens two to three weeks earlier than Carménère. In cases where the vineyards are interspersed with both varieties, the time of harvest is paramount in determining the character of the resulting blends. If Merlot grapes are picked when Carménère is fully ripe, they will be overripe and impart a "jammy" character. If the grapes are picked earlier when only the Merlot grapes have reached ripeness, the Carménère will have an aggressive green pepper flavor.
Thus, although different, Merlot and Carménère were often confused but never thought to be identical. Its distinctive differences meant the grape was called a "Merlot selection" or "Merlot Peumal," which was "a geographic reference to a valley south of Santiago where lots of Carménère was grown" before its true identity was established