Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lessons Learned in South America 2012: I'm Going to Have to Take Carmenere Seriously.

Four Revelations: South American Wine in 2012. This is the first entry - three more to come!

1 1.  I guess I’m going to have to take Carmenere seriously.
22.  Leyda has something special to offer
33. Carmenere and Bonarda will probably see strong sales in coming years
44.   Malbec from Argentina just gets better and better as the vineyards climb the andes

My first revelation, upon revisiting Chile for the first time in five years, is that I suppose I’m going to have to start taking Carmenere seriously after a visit to Chile’s Vinas Ventisquero. My experience with the grape over the past 20 years has been mixed, at best. I was loving hating it, and for all the right reasons. All too often it was had hard, green stemmy flavors that have not place in fine wine. I don’t care if it’s from Chile or elsewhere, I hadn’t until recently had many refined Carmeneres. And I’ve suffered enough brutes.

Part of that is clearly chalked up to the fact that this old Bordeaux grape is still clearly a work in progress. Frankly, I still think that Cabernet Sauvginon has more class and makes phenomenal wines in Chile, many of which are more old world, or Bordeaux-style than comparable California wines. That's really a compliment...
Carmenere was brought to Chile in the 19th century by European emigrants along with Merlot and Cabernet. The leaves of Carmenere vines look a lot like those of Merlot, and over time, the two became a bit confused and often inter-planted in the days before DNA testing. The problem is that Merlot ripens weeks earlier than Carmenere, and where the two types of vines were planted in the same vineyard, if the grapes were harvested at the same time, the Merlot would ripen early and the Carmenere was often harvested too early, contaminating the Merlot with tough tannins and ugly vegetal flavors.  If tar and green bell pepper are the first two flavor descriptors that pop into your mind when tasting a wine, it’s safe to say that your overall impression isn’t going to be all that great.

At its worst, Carmernere is aggressively tannic and can have pronounced vegetal, stemmy, leafy notes that just frankly don’t make the most pleasant wine.  When planted in the right place and properly ripened, it can make a deep, dark, structured wine that has layers of flavor that seriously rival Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve been a little more used to the former rather than the latter. And there’s a perfectly good historical explanation for that. It ripens very late, and that means that every vintage isn't particularly good. Late rains can cripple a crop of Carmenere. Again, Chile has in some ways more in common with Bordeaux than it does with California, despite the Pacific influence 

For some, the solution to the problem was to rip out the Carmenere and bid it good riddance. Other growers separated out the healthy Carmenere and sought out a better terroir for the grape – warmer regions and tougher hillside soils.

One of those growers was winemaker Felipe Tosso of Vinas Ventisquero, who has planted Carmenere along the steep hillsides of Apalta, where he says Carmenere out-performs Cabernet Sauvignon. I have to agree with him. While Cabernet performs brilliantly in the mountains of Napa Valley, even those hillsides are probably more fertile and less rocky than the Andean foothill soils of Apalta in the Colchagua Valley.

I think that after a visit to Vinas Ventisquero,  I’m going to have to admit that Carmenere is actually capable of making some really great wines. Theirs wasn’t the only good Carmerere I tasted on my trip, but it was a gem.

Touring the vineyards involved an especially rough ride in a durable vintage truck, which just goes to prove that if you’re not willing to put up with adverse conditions, you’re probably doomed to mediocrity as a grape grower, because the best wines almost often come from terrain that’s uncompromisingly rugged. Deal with it.

Lessons learned from Felippe Tosso:

·        Carmenere needs serious sun exposure to break down pyrazines, the molecules in grape skins that give it tough, green flavors.
·        Ways to tell Carmenere from Merlot: with Carmenere the bottom lobes of the grape leaves overlap – with Merlot they do not. In early spring Carmenere leaf buds are red-tinged, but for Merlot, they are pale green.
·        The way he tastes grapes link (thanks to Scott Jones from Jones Is Hungry - a super cool guy and fellow southerner)

The wines:

2011 Root:1 Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley. Racy white grapefruit, passion fruit, mint and grass notes, vivacious and fresh, but also perhaps a touch sweet with residual sugar. 90

2010 Root:1 Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley. Bright cherry tomato flavors, leafy and spicy with cinnamon notes. Just ok, with a bitter finish. 83

2010 Root:1 Carmenere Colchagua Valley. Notes of green tobacco with a nice core of berry fruit with good freshness and mint on the finish, with minimal, well integrated oak. Good freshness, well made. 88

2010 Root:1 Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Valley. Plummy and a bit baked, slightly confected overripe . and plush with black cherry, cola and chocolate flavors. 84

2010 Pinot Noir ‘Heru’ Casablanca Valley. Spicy and better focused with lively raspberry , cherry, violet notes, very nice even though it finishes a bit hot. 89

2008 ‘Vertice’ Carmenere / Syrah. Almost Napa-like with cedar, sweet raspberry and red currant fruit, mouth-coating, slightly syrupy with hints of licorice and graphite. Good, but a touch sweet. 87

2008 ‘Pangea’ Colchagua Valley ($50) Sweet blackberry, boysenberry, licorice notes with a nice round allspice-seasoned mouthfeel. I like it, but it’s a bit confected and sweet. 100% Syrah. 88

2009 ‘Grey’ Carmenere ($20) To me, this was the highlight of the tasting, extremely complex with tobacco, mocha, pepper and blackberry flavors that blended well, nice tannic grip, good acidity and not overripe. It came together very nicely. 92

1 comment:

  1. Great wrapup, thanks for pulling these observations together. It was a pleasure traveling with you, and yes, the Ventisquero wines are good.