The Carménère grape is a wine grape variety originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France, where it was used to produce deep red wines and occasionally used for blending purposes in the same manner as Petit Verdot.
A member of the Cabernet family of grapes, the name “Carménère” originates from the French word for crimson (carmin) which refers to the brilliant crimson color of the autumn foliage prior to leaf-fall. The grape is also known as Grande Vidure, a historic Bordeaux synonym, although current European Union regulations prohibit imports under this name into the European Union.
Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Carménère is considered part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux.
Now rarely found in France, the world’s largest area planted with this variety is in Chile, with more than 8,800 hectares (2009) cultivated in the Central Valley. As such, Chile produces the vast majority of Carménère wines available today and as the Chilean wine industry grows, more experimentation is being carried out on Carménère’s potential as a blending grape, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Carménère is also grown in Italy’s Eastern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, in Argentina, and in smaller quantities in California, Walla Walla (Washington and Oregon), and Rockingham County, North Carolina in the United States.
One of the most ancient European varieties, Carménère is thought to be the antecedent of other better-known varieties; some consider the grape to be a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is possible that the variety name is an alias for what is actually the Vidure, a local Bordeaux name for a Cabernet Sauvignon clone once thought to be the grape from which all red Bordeaux varieties originated.
There have also been suggestions that Carménère may be Biturica, a vine praised in ancient Rome and also the name by which the city of Bordeaux was known during that era. This ancient variety originated in Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal), according to Pliny the Elder; indeed, it is currently a popular blending variety with Sangiovese in Tuscany called “Predicato di Biturica”.
The Carménère grape has known origins in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France and was also widely planted in the Graves until the vines were struck with oidium. It is almost impossible to find Carménère wines in France today, as a phylloxera plague in 1867 nearly destroyed all the vineyards of Europe, afflicting the Carménère grapevines in particular such that for many years the grape was presumed extinct. When the vineyards were replanted, growers could not replant Carménère as it was extremely hard to find and more difficult to grow than other grape varieties common to Bordeaux. The region’s damp, chilly spring weather gave rise to coulure, a condition endemic to certain vines in climates which have marginal, sometimes cool, wet springs, which prevented the vine’s buds from flowering. Yields were lower than other varieties and the crops were rarely healthy; consequently wine growers chose more versatile and less coulure-susceptible grapes when replanting the vines and Carménère planting was progressively abandoned.
Far from being extinct, in recent years the Carménère grape has been discovered to be thriving in several areas outside France. In Chile, growers inadvertently preserved the grape variety during the last 150 years because it was mistaken for Merlot.
Cuttings of Carménère were imported by Chilean growers from Bordeaux during the 19th century, where they were frequently confused with Merlot vines. They modeled their wineries after those in France and in the 1850s cuttings from Bordeaux, which included Carménère grape, were planted in the valleys around Santiago. Thanks to central Chile’s minimal rainfall during the growing season and the protection of the country’s natural boundaries, growers produced healthier crops of Carménère, and there was no spread of phylloxera.
In modern-day France only a few hundred acres of Carménère officially exist, although there are rumors of renewed interest among growers in Bordeaux.
Carménère favors a long growing season in moderate to warm climates. During harvest time and the winter period the vine fares poorly if it is introduced to high levels of rain or irrigation water. This is particularly true in poor-soil plantings where the vine would need more water. Over-watering during this period accentuates the herbaceous and green pepper characteristics of the grape. The grape naturally develops high levels of sugar before the tannins achieve ripeness. If grown in too hot a climate the resulting wine will have a high alcohol level and low balance. Carménère buds and flowers three to seven days later than Merlot and the yield is lower than that of the latter grape. The Carménère leaves turn to crimson before dropping.
Carménère is produced in wineries either as a single-variety wine (sometimes called a varietal wine), or as a blend usually with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc or Merlot.
Carménère wine has a deep red color and aromas found in red fruits, spices and berries. The tannins are gentler and softer than those in Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a medium body wine. As a result, many find it can be drunk easily with fish. Although mostly used as a blending grape, wineries do bottle a pure varietal Carménère which, when produced from grapes at optimal ripeness, imparts a cherry-like, fruity flavor with smoky, spicy and earthy notes and a deep crimson color. Its taste might also be reminiscent of dark chocolate, tobacco, and leather. The wine is best to drink while it is young.
Production area 2018: 56 ha (138 acres)