Deep in the mountains of Chile, far inland in the Central Valley, lies the valley of Maipo. Here the intrepid taster can explore the most prestigious, oldest wineries in Chile, exemplified by wines made predominantly from red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. Though I don’t drink it often, this grape, the fine Carmenère grape, produces some of my favorite wines. Its aromas tend towards green bell pepper and bramble, solid earthy notes which complement a smooth mouthful of dark berry flavors, Merlot-like cola notes, and soft tannins. It is a grape that is sometimes hard to find on its own; usually Carmenère is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but pure varietal offerings are breaking ground among American wine drinkers, who find it an attractive midpoint between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body, but with some novel characteristics. Carmenère is quickly becoming one of my go-to winter wines. I also just enjoy saying the word Carmenère ( pronounced “kar-muh-NER”) aloud. Carmenère. Carmenère. Carmenère.
What I find most interesting about Carmenère is its lost-and-found history. Originally planted in Bordeaux in France, the grape went out of style due to its irregular ripening schedule in that region’s climate, and after the Phylloxera louse devastated the French wine industry in the 1880’s, Carmenère all but vanished from the scene. During an international boom in Merlot sales in the 1990’s (treated with great derision in the movie Sideways), the grape was rediscovered in Chile when winemakers realized they’d been billing it as Merlot all along. Once this was established, farmers began treating the wine with the particular care it requires – Carmenère needs to ripen on the vine for a much longer period than many other red varietals, otherwise they develop intense bell pepper and vegetal aromas which, when overdone, are extremely unattractive. Chile’s long growing season proved the perfect incubator for winning wines. Quality jumped, and at present this wine offers serious contenders for international fame at many price points. Chile has over 15,000 acres of vineyard devoted exclusively to this grape. Anyone can enjoy a bottle of this wine as a perfect introduction to the nuances of Chilean viniculture.
The 2007 Chono Carmenère is a perhaps among my top five favorite wines under $15, and this from someone whose forum is devoted to wines under $30. Alvaro Espinoza, the owner and winemaker for Chono, practices organic winemaking techniques, and it shows. When poured, it shows a deep ruby red in the glass, intense and extremely pleasing. Distinct green bell pepper aromas waft up immediately, along with seriously earthy elements, forest floor and so on. The pepper notes gradually diminish, and are supplanted by nice rich berry fruit. Soft mouthfeel, silky tannins, with more dark cherries and notes of smoke and spice from time spent aging in oak, but the acidity also snaps, making the medium finish nice and quenching. Superbly earthy, approachable and robust, yet downright complex for a wine at this price: $12. I would pair this offering from Chono with just about any charred red meat: barbecue, herb-encrusted roast lamb, or t-bone steak sizzling out of the pan.