Culinary Arts

Learn About Carménère Wine: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 4 min read

Misunderstood and underappreciated for most of its history, the carménère grape is like the unpopular high-schooler who becomes successful and well-liked after leaving their hometown for college. A plague chased carménère out of Europe, but the warmer climes of Chile in South America turned out to be just what this unique grape needed to reach its fullest potential.

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What Is Carménère?

Carménère is a red wine grape variety that yields wines with strong green pepper notes and is reminiscent of cabernet sauvignon. Carménère was a classic component of the red wines of Bordeaux, France until it was wiped out of France completely by the phylloxera pest. Carménère reappeared in Chile, where the warm climate is hospitable to the finicky but distinctive carménère grape.

What Is the History of Carménère?

Carménère, whose name comes from “crimson,” after the color of its leaves in the fall, is an ancient grape, with origins in Spain. The Romans planted carménère in Bordeaux’s Medoc region, where it became one of the six grapes allowed to go into a red Bordeaux blend, alongside cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot.

But the sun-loving carménère vine was ill-suited to the cool, damp maritime climate of Bordeaux, and growers often had to pick the grapes before they were ripe. Further hardship struck in the mid-1800s, when phylloxera, an aphid brought to France on vines from the Americas, infected vineyards across Europe. Up to 90% of the vines in the Bordeaux region had to be uprooted to stop the pest, including most of the carménère vines. Farmers decided to invest their replanting efforts in grape varieties that were easier to grow, so by the early 1900s carménère was effectively extinct in France. Luckily, other plantings of carménère in Italy and South America were not affected by phylloxera, and the carménère grape got a second chance to thrive in these regions.

Carménère on wood sign in front of vinyard

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Where Does Carménère Grow?

Because carménère takes up to three weeks longer to ripen than other Bordeaux grapes, like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it needs a sunny climate with a long growing season.

  • Chile. Chile’s climate is ideal for growing carménère, and the country boasts 80% of the world’s carménère plantings, with about 25,000 acres devoted to the grape. Most carménère vines are planted in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, part of the Rapel Valley wine region in the center of the country, with some planted in the Maipo Valley near Santiago. The best sub-regions for carménère are Apalta and Los Lingues, in the Colchagua valley. Chilean winemakers make a range of wines, from easy-drinking, inexpensive bottles to premium oak-aged examples, like Purple Angel from Montes, that receive notice from global critics.
  • France. Carménère appears in vanishingly small quantities in a handful of French Bordeaux producers’ red blends, but the challenge of growing the grape in Bordeaux’s damp, cool climate makes it more of a historical curiosity than anything.
  • Italy. In Italy, small amounts of the grape grow in the north-eastern regions of Friuli and the Veneto. The cooler climate leads to carménère with more herbal, green pepper flavors, and it is often blended with the red grapes cabernet franc (a related grape for which carménère was once mistaken) and refosco.
  • New World. As carménère becomes more of a household name in red wine, producers are experimenting with it in new wine regions like New Zealand, Australia, and China.

What Wines Are Made With Carménère?

Carménère is usually made in a dry style with elevated alcohol (14-15% ABV) and smooth, fine tannins. Chilean carménère is most often made as a single varietal wine. Sometimes Chilean carménère is blended with up to 15% petit verdot or syrah for added tannin or meatiness. Carménère is also a part of Chile’s Bordeaux-style red blends.

What Are the Characteristics of the Carménère Grape?

Carménère is part of the cabernet family of grapes and shares their distinctive green pepper note from pyrazine compounds. In carménère, this aroma can be unpleasantly strong and sharp when the grapes are picked underripe. It softens when the grapes are fully ripe, allowing more fruit notes to show through. Carménère’s rich fruitiness and mellow tannins make carménère wine best drunk young and fresh, rather than aged.

How Does Carménère Taste?

Carménère’s flavor is spicy and herbal, with plush red fruit flavors.

Fruit notes:

  • Cherry
  • Raspberry
  • Pomegranate
  • Blackberry

Savory notes:

  • Fresh green bell pepper
  • Roasted red pepper
  • Green peppercorn
  • Smoke

With oak aging, carménère presents a few deep tasting notes:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Cocoa powder

What Is the Difference Between Carménère and Merlot?

Carménère and merlot are both blending grapes included in Bordeaux. Carménère and merlot vines were long confused for one another in the vineyard because their leaves are similar in shape, but carménère ripens much later than merlot. Merlot and carménère both make fruity, slightly tannic wines, but carménère has more red fruit character compared to merlot, which has more plush, black stone fruit flavors. Carménère is also more herbal than merlot, with savory bell pepper and black pepper spice notes.

What Is the Difference Between Carménère and Malbec?

Carménère and malbec are both blending grapes included in Bordeaux that have become more popular in South America than in their native France. Malbec, grown mostly in Mendoza, Argentina, is extremely smooth, with dark floral aromas and ripe blackberry and plum fruitiness. Like carménère, malbec can have coffee and chocolate notes from oak, but malbec never has the green bell pepper note that defines carménère.

Steaks with red wine on slab with rosemary

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Best Carménère Wine and Food Pairings

Carménère’s smokiness makes it a natural match for grilled meats, from steak to lamb to sausage. Barbeque sauce can also pair well with the grape’s red fruit notes. Try herb sauces like salsa verde or chimichurri with savory, herbal examples of carménère.

Learn more about wine wine tasting and pairings in James Suckling’s MasterClass.