Bordeaux + Chile = Carmenere

morandeI admit it — I really like South American wines. They can be bold, rustic, in-your-face and over-the-top, but that’s they’re style. They’re like a Latin lover: hot-blooded, hot-tempered, but oh, so fun to play with.

So this week I’m in Chile. Well, not literally south of the Equator, but that’s where my tasting is focused. I have two Chilean Carmenere’s and we’re going to let them duke it out. But let’s get some perspective and context first.

Don’t feel like a dummy if you’ve never heard of the Carmenere grape. For about a century and a half, no one knew about Carmenere. The grape was native to the Bordeaux region of France and was one of the six grapes blended into red Bordeaux wine (for the wine-geek-wannabe’s, the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Cuttings from Bordeaux vines were taken to Chile sometime in the 19th century, and Son of a Gun if they didn’t grow much better in Chile’s warm, dry climate than they had in their homeland.

But somewhere along the way, the Carmenere got lumped in with the Merlot, because they were visually similar. Funny, though, that what the Chileans bottled as Merlot had a very distinctive, earthy edge… So it wasn’t until the 1990′s that the lightbulb went off and Carmenere got its own locker in the locker room. Growers realized that it had the potential to make classic wine, blended or by itself, as long as it got a little more hang-time for the grapes to fully ripen and develop their phenolics (that’s the stuff in the grapes that delivers complexity and flavor).

So Carmenere, the “lost Bordeaux varietal,” leap-frogged from being a no-name to becoming Chile’s signature red grape.

But is it any good? Well, sure. At its best it offers intense color, lots of rich berry flavors, spice, hints of things like smoke, leather, tobacco or earth, and a smoother, less-tannic finish than Cab Sauv.

So my job here is to taste two Carmeneres, from different wineries and at different price points, and see what we think. I started with Morande Pionero Carmenere Maipo Valley 2009. Vina Morande is only 15 years old, but it’s made a huge commitment in vineyards, facilities, and personnel. The winery has created about five tiers of wines, from everyday stuff to world-class. Pionero is Morande’s entry-level line, and is designed to be “Friendly, lively, and approachable.”

All those words fit the Carmenere I tried. It’s the kind of bottle you could slam down on the table when you get together with friends, or pop open on a Tuesday night without a bit of “guilt” about spending yet more of your grocery budget on alcoholic beverages. (This is the definition of a Tuesday Night Wine, and Tuesday Night Wines should form a significant part of your wine collection.)

This wine doesn’t need any fancy descriptors. It’s round, which means there are no harsh edges. It’a also full-bodied enough to satisfy your wine appetite and stand up to your burgers or chicken. It’s fruity, but not in a Juicy Fruit kind of way: the taste reminded me of cherries and red berries, with some spice-herb-mint on the side. I didn’t get the earth or smoke I expected, so the wine is relatively simple. But that’s not a bad thing: this is a “drink and enjoy” wine, so drink and enjoy! For under $10, I think it’s a great value.

In a day or two we’ll taste a single-vineyard Carmenere, and see what we can learn by way of comparison. Cheers!

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