Carmenere should be more popular than it is. Often described as Chile's signature red grape, it's hardly as well-known as malbec, the other big Bordeaux transplant in South America, which put Argentina on the map during the past decade. Chances are, fans of Chilean wine are more likely to associate the country with cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, the trio that brought Chile to export prominence in the 1990s after it emerged from the protectionist regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Two things hobbled carmenere's potential. The first was a case of mistaken identity. Until the mid-1990s, many growers confused it with merlot, its kissing cousin, often growing the two side by side. Red-faced at first, producers turned the error to their advantage, promoting the grape as the country's "new" calling card. Also, as with malbec, carmenere (pronounced kar-meh-NEHR) tends to grow better in the dry regions of South America than in its humid spiritual homeland of Bordeaux, where it long ago faded into obscurity.
Self-esteem helps, but there's got to be quality in the bottle for a grape to conquer today's world. That was another problem. Fickle to grow, carmenere tends to exhibit harshly herbaceous flavours when overirrigated or planted in rainy sites. Just as problematic, in hot zones it develops high sugars quickly, prompting less-exacting growers to pick early. Grapes can taste sweet before they shed their green flavours, nuances that may become apparent only in the finished wine. That lack of so-called phenolic ripeness, versus sugar ripeness, was carmenere's unfortunate calling card.
I employed the past tense there because farmers are learning, delaying harvest for that all-important phenolic ripeness. There are disadvantages to picking later, though. High sugars translate into higher alcohol as well as overly jammy flavours. The right vineyard site is critical. Two of the carmenere-heavy red blends below, Purple Angel and Calicanto, featured as part of today's Chile spotlight at Ontario Vintages stores, push the envelope at a hefty 15 per cent. But I think they're balanced, with ample fruit to tame the heat.
Montes Purple Angel 2007, Chile
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $49.95
One of Chile's big carmenere kahunas, this contains 8 per cent of the dark-hued and jammy petit verdot. I love the intense berry concentration and underlying mineral quality in this blend along with its bracing smoky note. Lots of fine-grained tannins here, so expect astringency. Decant it if you can and serve it with herb-crusted lamb or cellar it for up to 10 more years. Alcohol: 15 per cent.
Concha Y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 Carmenere 2007, Chile
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
You may know Concha Y Toro for its more pedestrian, $12 fare. The brand aspires to greatness, though, and here's evidence. Growers waited until the right time to pick this beauty. It's full-bodied, succulent, juicy and intense, with a eucalyptus note that never veers into the weeds. Match it with grilled beef.
Emiliana Adobe Reserva Syrah 2009, Chile
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $12.95
Full, dark and plummy, this drinks like a wine twice its price. And it shows impressive varietal character, with a classic Rhone Valley syrah dusting of cracked pepper and chewy tannins. Pair it with roast game birds or braised red meats.
Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2009, Chile
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
A well-crafted harmony of flavours in this white, with tropical fruit, toasty oak and acidity in equal measure. It would pair well with boiled lobster.
Canepa Reserva Privada Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Concentrated and delicious for the money, this red delivers coffee and mocha nuances on a core of cassis, with lightly dusty tannins. Try it with steak.
El Principal Calicanto 2009, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
A blend of cabernet sauvignon and carmenere, it's big, at 15-per-cent alcohol. But the ripeness stays in check, with fresh fruit flavours and a strong savoury note, as though herbs had been steeped in cherry juice. Pair it with braised red meats.
Anakena Lilen Single Vineyard Viognier 2010, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Chile is a growing source of affordable, true-to-type viogniers. Drier and with less of that glycerin quality found in many of its French counterparts, this white dishes up bitter orange, blossom and honey, with well-integrated, 13.5-per-cent alcohol. I'd try it with light curries.
Anakena Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Chile
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $13.95
I have grown to expect little from $14 pinot noir, yet this one walks and talks with genuine pinot presence. Berries hold up its light frame, abetted by a vague vegetal note that might remind some of slightly more expensive offerings from Oregon.
Chilensis Reserva Carmenere 2010, Chile
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $12.95
Imagine a concentrated Beaujolais Nouveau, only with a tad more refinement. It's youthful, as the vivid, purple colour will attest. It's a fine quaff and for me called to mind a mouthful of berries chased by a fistful of Hickory Sticks.