Carmenere belongs to the Cabernet family of vines and is one of Bordeaux’s six permitted varietals for red wine. However, it is now typically used only in small amounts, if at all, by winemakers in Bordeaux. During the phylloxera infestation of the mid-1800s, Carmenere vines were hit especially hard and the varietal was thought to have been nearly wiped out. As the vineyards of Bordeaux were replanted in the late 19th century, Carmenere was largely forsaken in favor of varietals that produced more consistent yields and were less prone to disease. Luckily for Carmenere, it had often enjoyed over the years the good fortune of being mistaken for both Merlot and Cabernet Franc, leading to its unintentional importation to other countries. These dispersions led to the cultivation of Carmenere in Italy, New Zealand, and most notably in Chile, where cuttings believed to be Merlot were imported and widely planted prior to the Bordeaux phylloxera outbreak of the mid-1800s. Only in the 1990s were these “Merlot” vines discovered to be, in fact, Carmenere.
Today, Chile is the largest producer of Carmenere wines worldwide, and the grape is used both in blends as well as in pure varietal wines, the latter being quite a departure from its traditional role in Bordeaux. The warm, dry climate of Chile is far more favorable to the healthy growth and production of Carmenere than the humid weather of Bordeaux. Consequently, in the right environment and when handled properly Carmenere produces extraordinary wines in Chile with intense red fruit, earth, smoke, and spice flavors. However, Carmenere’s tannins remain softer than those of Cabernet Sauvignon, making it easier to drink and enjoy in its youth as a varietal and in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon.