This was a grape that was very near to being forgotten. It heralds from Bordeaux but was only ever used as a minor part of the Bordeaux red blends. The Bordelais aren’t very kind about it, one famous wine professor once told me it was a terrible grape that should never be used again. But just like Malbec in Argentina, the Chileans have taken it under their wing and are doing some very good things with it. Although they are only just starting to confess it is Carménère, in the past many of the vines were classified incorrectly as Merlot. So if you were drinking Chilean Merlot a while ago, it may have been this very grape instead.
So the criticism comes because it can be very green and peppery if not properly ripe. The trick is getting it fully ripe in the vineyard and the Chileans are getting better and better at that. When fully ripe it has beautifully rich plummy fruit, sometimes with raspberry twists, then a hit of menthol or freshly crushed red peppercorns. Its inherent spiciness can make it charming and characterful.
Beware that it can still be used as a cheap bulk wine and many of the versions at the entry price level are just a bit dull and easy to forget. So if you are trying this for the first time pay that little bit more to get a taste of the real character of this interesting grape.
Late ripening and prone to high yields which is why it can often retain a green leafy character if not fully mature. Sugars can often accumulate quickly whilst tannins are not fully ripe; causing high alcohol in some warm climate wines.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc
France: Bordeaux (rare nowadays)
Chile: Central Valley, Colchuagua, Maipo, Rapel, Elqui Valleys
Italy: Fruili-Venezie-Guilia, Veneto
Grilled steak, lamb with mint sauce, Sezchuan beef, roasted peppers or ratatouille