I got to sample a good bit of Carmenere wine when I went on a tour of Chile’s wine districts a while back. There wasn’t much side-by-side tasting from different wineries then though, so I was excited when Wines of Chile offered to send a sampling kit of different Carmenere wines (technically Carménère with the accents) to run through in a tasting. They also sent some spices from the Ger-Nis Culinary and Herb Center in New York to put together a meal of Indian food, the point being that these wines have the heft and spice to stand up to food that’s hitting all the taste buds.
I can’t bear to see wine go to waste, so I invited a relative to help me taste two of these in a preliminary round and then had some friends over for oven-baked tandori chicken with chutney, vegetarian curry, and raita later for the others.
Chile’s great hope is to make Carmenere as popular and well-known as Malbec from Argentina or Shiraz from Australia. Or at least Zinfandel from California. There are some obstacles there: this wine can be inconsistent and doesn’t have much of a nose, so it has traditionally been used more as a blending grape, including back when it was a Bordeaux grape in France historically. Still, it’s got a lot more heft than some wimpier wines like Merlot if it’s done right and this sampling proved the point.
The best thing it has going for it is value. The eight wines in my sampling ranged from a list price of $13 to $24. Chances are you’ll find them for even less in your local shop or online at a place like Wine.com. This is despite the fact that many of these are made from hand-picked grapes that are then sorted by hand and they are aged for months in real barrels—no cheating with wood chips tossed in a giant vat.
Of the eight, three emerged as crowd favorites and they were in the middle of the pack price-wise. Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 from the Apalta Valley was deemed the “most European” of the bunch. It is dry, with deep tannins, and felt very structured. Aged in French Oak barrels for 10 months, it has a long finish and went well with a variety of food.
Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 from the Rapel Valley was also a hit. This is an earthy wine aged 15 months in barrels and has a lot of heft, with tastes of herbs, cherries, and blackberries complimented with lots of spiciness. It went very well with the curry dish.
Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 is a very silky and elegant wine, with hints of dark chocolate and plenty of fruit. For us it was the one that seemed to evolve the most after breathing a while. In the end it was a bit sweeter than the others.
One not rising to the top but getting comments of “that is really good for organic wine” was the Natura Carmenere 2010 from Emiliana winery in the Colchagua Valley. I got to sample a whole range of their output on my Chile visit and can attest that the whole line is surprisingly good, really great in some cases. They’ll change your whole outlook on how much organic wine has progressed in the past five or six years.
None of the other four wines we tried out was a clunker and taste is a very personal thing, so consider all these to be worth checking out as well—they were hand-picked by people who are in the know. We also tried Carmenere from Santa Rita, Montes Alpha (the $24 one), household name Concha y Toro, and Haras de Pirque. The last one is not a pure Carmenere as it has some Cabernet Savignon in the mix. Because of this, it was the only one with much of a smell when sticking my nose into the glass, so I think the traditional Chilean blends still have an advantage when it comes to wine you would sip on their own without food.
Next time you’re cooking up some curry, however, give a bottle of carmenere a try. You might be surprised by how well they go together!
Some other bloggers, some with more wine experience than me, are doing a live webinar with a Chilean vintner tonight, which I couldn’t attend because I’m adventuring in Chiapas, Mexico. But I’ll report back later with some links to what they discovered.