Similar to malbec in Argentina, carménere came to Chile from France in the 1800s. An offspring of cabernet franc, it now is grown almost exclusively in Chile. While still in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon, it's poised to become Chile's signature grape.
The grape's story in Chile is complex. In the late 1980s, it was discovered that much of what the nation's wineries thought was merlot was actually carménere. Many producers ripped out the carménere to replant with merlot. Fortunately, some decided to keep the carménere, and by 1996 wineries began to release varietally labeled carménere.
When allowed to ripen properly, the wine supplies rich red and black fruit, some spice (fresh tobacco, coffee, cocoa, leather), smooth texture and solid but supple tannins. As with most grapes, some blending - usually with cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot or syrah - benefits the final product. It helps that the wines are food friendly.
Quality has reached the point where prices for the best wines can approach $100. But, assuming most readers are unfamiliar with the grape, I suggest starting at the introductory level. With one exception, none of the wines listed here is more than $20 and each delivers a lot of character for the money.
- 2011 Carmen Gran Reserva Apalta Vineyard ($16): Founded in 1850, this is one of the older names in Chilean wine and now one of the country's larger wineries. Enjoy aromas of toasty oak and spicy herbs with fresh berries and soft texture.
- 2012 Maquis ($20): This 100 year-old, family-owned winery uses estate-grown fruit, including 15 percent cabernet franc, to craft a wine with aromas of red plum and boysenberry and a light woody note, with good depth, a fresh mouthfeel and hint of anise.
- 2013 Casa Silva Cuvee Colchagua ($15): This family-owned winery dates to 1892 with connections to Colchagua's first European settlers. Expect straightforward jammy black fruit, peppery and woody notes, cocoa and a soft texture.
- 2013 Criterion Collection Reserva ($16): From a négociant who buys wines from several countries, this has a nice balance of berries, hints of brown spices and savory notes.
- 2013 Maipo Gran Devoción ($25): Founded in 1948 in the Maipo Valley, Maipo has been owned by Concha y Toro, the largest Chilean wine company, since 1968. This carménere/syrah (15 percent syrah) offers red fruits, peppery spice and a lush texture.
- 2013 Ventisquero Grey ($20): Barely 20 years old, Ventisquero's Grey portfolio features a single block of vines - in this case the Trinidad Vineyard in Maipo Valley. You'll find strong tobacco, dark berries, savory notes and fresh tannins.
- 2014 Santa Carolina Cachapoal Estate Reserva ($11): Founded in 1875 in what now is the city of Santiago, this is Chile's third largest wine producer. From the La Rinconada Estate in Rapel Valley, there is a lot of wine here - succulent blackberry and plum, oaky and spicy, with mild tannins.