Carménère was thought to be extinct after phylloxera struck Bordeaux vineyards in the mid-1860s, but in the 1990s, a mysterious anomaly in Merlot emerged in Chile. Was it the lost grape?
In the middle of the 19th century, Chile began planting what were believed to be Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines. The vineyards thrived and began producing notable wines. As years passed, winemakers across Chile were noticing that the Merlots being crafted there displayed a somewhat unusual flavor profile, showcasing more pronounced spiciness than is typical of Merlot.
French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot (among other researchers) began to study the phenomenon. In addition to boasting significant spiciness, nontypical characteristics emerged; vines turned a brilliant red color, and the plants exhibited twisted stamens to name a few noted by Boursiquot. DNA studies proved that the vines previously identified as Merlot in Chile were Carménère.
Viña Carmen winery, where Boursiquot determined the vines were Carménère, was one of the first in Chile to bottle Carménère in 1996. Grape growers and winemakers expanded the planting and production of this luxurious and spicy variety and many now of it as Chile’s crown jewel red wine.
Chile remains the country where Carménère is the most widely grown. Tasting numerous examples of carménère crafted by wineries I visited in Chile, including Montes (Apalta Valley), Concho y Toro (Cachapoal Valley), Anakena (Rapel Valley), Neyen (Apalta Valley), El Huique (Colchagua Valley), Lapostolle (Casablanca Valley) and Almaviva (Maipo Valley) made me a solid fan of this captivating variety.
I have since discovered quite a few noteworthy examples in the Great Northwest:
Parma Ridge Winery 2017 Carménère, Yakima Valley ($39): This gloriously aromatic Carménère struts forth with notes of violets and dark fruit. The winery is in the heart of the Snake River Valley in Idaho. Proprietors Storm and Stephanie Hodge craft wine from their 9.5 acre estate vineyard in Parma and also source fruit from Washington. Coating the palate are bright and plush layers of black cherry, plum, vanilla bean, and savory spice. Well-integrated oak adds dimension, and the finish is fresh and stimulating.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2018 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills: ($32): Winemaker Coco Umiker and her co-owner/viticulturist husband Karl Umiker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Idaho’s Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area crafted this beautifully balanced Carménère. Notes of dark berries and black pepper rise from the glass. On the palate, olallieberries, black plum jam, cocoa, a thread of earthiness, black peppercorns, and herbes de Provence are supported by perfect balancing acidity and refined tannins. A smooth texture delivers a lifted finish.
Season Cellars 2016 Carménère, Southern Oregon ($40): This jazzy wine (crafted of 90% Carménère and 10% Malbec), offered by co-owners/winemakers Jennifer and Scott Henry, excites the senses with its spicy aroma. Tantalizing the palate are flavors of black raspberries, huckleberries and red berry chutney joining underlying earth, a pinch of white pepper and freshly squeezed orange. It finishes strong and long with a delightful bittersweet chocolate note.
Tertulia Cellars 2016 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills ($48): Forest berries and roasted pepper scents lead to an alluring first sip. Broadening on the palate are layers of juicy Elephant Heart plums, red berries, savory olive tapenade, a suggestion of jalapeno and hints of campfire smoke joining tinges of roasted bell peppers. Well-integrated tannins and complementary acidity keep the wine balanced through the persistent, memorable finish.
Maryhill Winery 2016 Elephant Mountain Vineyards Carménère, Rattlesnake Hills ($46): This lively wine grabs your attention with one swirl. Spicy, earthy nuances on the nose are followed by a silky entry. Filling the mouth are succulent boysenberries, Bing cherries and black currants accented by underlying earthiness, tobacco, vanilla, and spice box elements. Oak nuances from 20 months in 40% new French oak are well integrated, the tannins are approachable, and the lingering finish sings.
Liberty Lake Wine Cellars 2017 Heart of the Hill Vineyard Carménère, Red Mountain ($38): Inviting wild blackberries on the nose stay front and center on the lush palate. Joining the rich black and red berry core are elements of fresh mint, Sweetheart cherries, chocolate-covered caramels, and piquant spice. Well-structured and nicely balanced with gentle tannins, and a zesty, lasting finish.
Drink Washington State 2016 “Visit Wahluke Slope” Carménère, Wahluke Slope ($29): This highly spirited Carménère leads with aromas of dark cherry and brown baking spices. Velvety on the palate with layers of red raspberry, spice-scented cherry compote, fresh chopped herbs and hints of damp earth. Elegant and well-structured with a finish that boasts depth and length.
Additional Northwest wineries producing Carménère include:
Jones of Washington:
Sleeping Dog Wines:
Stone Griffon Vineyard:
Northwest Cellars Winery:
Chateau Faire Le Pont:
Martinez & Martinez Winery:
Spoiled Dog Winery:
ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier, Certified Wine Specialist , wine educator and professional wine judge. Reach Ellen at email@example.com.