It’s been a long time coming, but Carmenere, the signature grape of Chile, is finally getting some of the recognition and praise it deserves.
Never a darling of the critics, long misidentified by the experts, even vanishing from the wine scene entirely, Carmenere has finally found its home in the vineyards of Chile as well as its place on the wine shelves and dinner tables here in the U.S. and elsewhere.
I personally love Carmenere for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s extremely flexible with food. With neither the weight, nor the searing tannins of other popular red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, Carmenere usually produces a medium-bodied wine with soft tannins, yet one with lovely fruit, spice, and smoke flavors and aromas and surprising complexity.
Carmenere’s even better when the yields are kept in check and the grapes are allowed to fully ripen. What’s more, because of the aforementioned natural smoky quality and lower levels of tannin, the wine is also, in my humble opinion, the single best option for Kansas City Barbecue, and that makes me smile every time I pop a cork.
Before opining further, I thought it appropriate to give you a little background on this wonderfully under-priced and under-appreciated grape.
Carmenere was originally planted in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, France as one of the original six red grapes from the world’s most famous wine region. Never a star, Carmenere was a role player in Bordeaux, used as a blending grape along with Petit Verdot to bring a little spice and color to the red wine blend.
Then, something happened. Carmenere disappeared from European vineyards in the mid-19th Century, only to show up among Chile’s Merlot vines a hundred years later. In fact, for most of the 20th Century, the grape was mistaken for Merlot until DNA tests property identified it.
Carmenere is among the deepest and darkest of the red wine grapes. It also takes a very long time to ripen, often hanging on the vines for weeks after the Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah have been picked, rushed and fermented. But that extra time pays dividends with richness, ripeness and complexity.
And, that brings me back to Carmenere’s affinity for cuisine, including barbecue, and a second reason I enjoy Carmenere so much. It won’t break the bank if you want to experiment and try different Carmeneres with different food. I did that recently in a barbecue blowout at my house. I smoked ribs, sausage, brisket, and chicken, and had a little Carmenere and barbecue smack down. And, the winner was? Carmenere!
Turns out, a variety of Carmenere from different producers, different regions and different price points all went well with the ‘que. Among my favorites, the Santa Rita Medella Real, which has a real depth of flavors and aromas and a sub-$20 price tag. It was best with the ribs and brisket.
Cono Sur — cheesy name, I know — produces a surprisingly good organic Carmenere for a little more than $10 that really holds its own. It’s definitely lighter and less complex, but it paired nicely with the sausage and chicken.
I like a couple of Carmeneres from Concha Y Toro, Chile’s largest wine producer. Their Gran Reserva Serie Riberaas Carmenere is dark and ripe, with an amazingly long finish. It’s normally on shelves for around $20, but I’ve found it for as low as $15 — and at that price it’s worth buying by the case.
Then there’s the Terrunyo Carmenere. At double the price and about double the complexity, this could be my favorite Carmenere. A bit big for the sausage and chicken, the Terrunyo was a stunningly good match with both the ribs and brisket, especially the brisket!
There are so many other Carmeneres I enjoyed, not just with the barbecue, but over the years. Producers like Undurraga, Tamaya, Montes, MontGras, Casa Silva, and dozens of others produce delicious versions of Carmenere that are both affordable and unique-great representations of this lost grape that has truly found its home.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.