What Is Carmenere Wine?

Carmenere Vineyards at Viña Tipaume
Carmenere Vineyards at Viña Tipaume

FRPGCHILE / Wikimedia Commons / CC by SA-4.0

Originating in Bordeaux, France, carménère (kahr-meh-NEHR) is a very popular red wine grape in Chile. Deep red with flavors of plum, berries, and spice and a bitter finish, it's often blended with cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Carménère is medium-bodied with medium acidity and a standard amount of alcohol for red wine. Its lack of tannins makes it better for immediate consumption rather than cellaring. Despite its popularity in Chile, the wine has yet to become widely popular outside of the South American country.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Chile (Central Valley and Aconcagua), Italy, China
  • Origin: Bordeaux, France
  • Sweetness: Medium dry
  • Color: Deep purplish-red
  • ABV: 13–15%

Carménère vs. Merlot

Growing in Chile, carménère was originally mistaken for merlot because of its similar body and flavor profile. The medium to full-bodied red wines can both exhibit ripe fruit flavors like plum and berries and pair well with meat. Both wines have a softer tannin structure, making them good for blending with wines like cabernet sauvignon. Carménère tends to have a more herbaceous quality than merlot with a bitter finish. The two wines sometimes end up blended together in red wine blends.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Carménère is a medium to full-bodied dry red wine with aromas of tobacco, leather, dark fruit, coffee, bell pepper, and chocolate. On the palate, carménère has medium acidity and tannins with flavors of plum, raspberry, blackberry, peppercorn, green bell pepper, vanilla, and spice. The red wine can have a lingering, bitter finish, similar to cocoa powder. Cheaper carménère is often harvested too early and exhibits strong bitter characteristics. It is often blended with merlot or cabernet sauvignon, balancing out any bitterness.

How to Taste Wine

For the best wine tasting experience, follow a few steps:

  1. Look: Take a look at the wine in its glass, examining the color and opacity.
  2. Smell: Swirl your glass for at least 10 seconds and take a quick whiff. Stick your nose into the wine glass for a deep inhale, and note your first impressions of the wine.
  3. Taste: Take a small sip and let it roll over your tongue. Note the tannins, acidity, sugar, and alcohol content at first, then move on to tasting notes (fruit, spice, wood) and finally the finish.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Carménère grapes are originally from France but have since found favor in Chile's Central Valley where it is grown with gusto. This grape has an interesting heritage in Chile, with it originally being mistaken for merlot. Once DNA tests confirmed it as Bordeaux's long-lost carménère, the grape became known worldwide as Chile's red grape. It's occasionally grown in other regions like Italy, China, Argentina, and New Zealand.

For the best quality carménère, the grapes must be allowed a long summer growing season and are often one of the last grapes off the vine during the autumn harvest. Grapes harvested earlier tend to be overly herbaceous and bitter. The vines prefer hot, dry days, making them especially perfect for growing in Chile.

Food Pairings

Carménère is an extremely good barbecue wine and goes well with meaty Chilean dishes like empanadas de pino. Grilled and stewed meats like brisket, dark meat turkey, and carne asada. Spiced dishes like beef curry and chicken mole also make good pairs with carménère. Try serving with creamy cheeses like goat cheese and mozzarella.

Serve in a red wine glass at a cool 65 F. With its lower acidity levels, Carmenere is typically not a grape that is built to age and is best consumed within a couple of years of its vintage date.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Carménère can be trickier to find than more popular red wines like merlot or pinot noir, but most high-quality wine shops will stock a few. If all else fails, you can order some bottles through a shop or online. The red wine tends to be affordable, with some bottles priced under $15, and are often labeled as red wine blends. While there are some good wines priced well, it pays to spend closer to $20 or $30. Some bargain-basement carménères can be overly bitter thanks to an early harvest. If you can't find the Chilean wine, pick up a merlot.

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