Few grapes have been so widely misunderstood as Chilean Carménère. Once thought to be nothing more than Merlot, this grape has had a pretty short lifespan as its own namesake in the country where it is now considered a flagship. It was in 1994, just about 25 years ago that Carménère was discovered to be a separate grape and not “Chilean Merlot.” However, in those years since, this black grape has made a significant impact on the global market at both premium and economical levels.
A Carménère for Every Taste
From toasty and dark to fresh and fruity, spicy, and herbal to fully ripened, Carménère has expressed itself differently throughout the years depending on vineyard site, climate, and how the winemaker understood it or didn’t as the case may have been. There is truly a Carménère style for every taste. It is most successful in warmer sites, although thrives just fine in slightly cooler sites near the Pacific Ocean or close to the Andes Mountains, maybe just with a little more herbaceous flavor. Wines are usually full-bodied with big tannins and a signature spicy character along with dominating dark fruits. For those who have had a fair share of Carménère wines over the years, you know a premium one from one that is not.
Terra Noble Wines
I recently had the opportunity to taste through a lineup of Carménère from the Chilean producer Terra Noble. Terra Noble was founded in 1993 by Don Jorge Elgueta, who had a vision of producing premium Chilean wines in the Maule Valley. After planting what they thought was Merlot in some of the cooler sites of the valley, Elgueta and his team soon discovered that what they were actually cultivating was Carménère, which became their focus at the winery from there on out. In the early 2000s, the winery began to plant in the Colchagua and Casablanca Valleys, allowing for even more diversity of terroir near the ocean and closer to the Andes. In 2006, the winery came under the leadership of German entrepreneur, Wolf von Appen, following Don Jorge’s death in 2003. Terra Noble is now a premium producer and exporter with a focus on sustainability and specializing in Carménère from multiple sites around the top grape-growing regions of Chile under the direction of winemaker, Marcelo García.
Gran Reserva Carménère 2018
Spicy black pepper, black fruits, ripe raspberry, with a silky-smooth balanced structure. I was really impressed with just how incredibly smooth this wine is. Carménère can sometimes have a more rustic feel, but not this bottle. Medium tannins and medium, well-blended acidity. For a wine priced at $18.99 a bottle, this is a great value for the quality.
CA1 “Andes” Carménère 2016 & CA 1 2017
The “CA” wines are part of Terra Noble’s premium category. I had the opportunity to taste both the 2016 and 2017 of the CA1 wines. These vintages were quite different despite being from the same vineyard sites–Los Lingues in Colchagua Valley near the Andes. Though the climate is warm Mediterranean, there is a large diurnal shift from day to night with winds coming off the Andes Mountains. This gives the grapes the opportunity to develop their flavors in the warmth, but also maintain proper acidity due to the cool nights.
2016 was a cooler year, and the wines reflect that. More fresh, intense red fruit and a bit of that herbaceous green bell pepper. The grapes for this year were even picked later–April 28th–compared to the warmer 2017 harvest–April 11th. In 2017, the wines show riper flavors, with more jammy black and red fruits, black pepper, and a rounded, softer mouthfeel. Both excellent, well-balanced wines made using the same techniques in the winery–85% aged in new and twice used French oak barrels, and 15% in untoasted foudres for 14 months, along with 12 months in the bottle before release.
CA2 “Costa” Carménère 2017
The CA2 wines come from the cooler “Costa” region near the Pacific Ocean, specifically the Lolol vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, which is about 70 km west of the Andes vineyards. This site is about 40 km from the ocean, giving it a milder Mediterranean climate with cool ocean breezes and less of a diurnal shift. The cooler temps allow for a slower ripening of the grapes, giving them a different overall texture and taste.
The structure of this wine is bigger with more pronounced tannins. It is fresh but with flavors such as black pepper, tar, and tobacco for a more intense wine overall. Black fruit like black cherry and cassis dominate the fruit profile. The same vinification techniques are used as in the CA1 wines, shining the spotlight on the expression of the grapes from one vineyard site to another to create diversity in the bottle.
The CA wines are priced at $24.99, which again, is a great value for these premium wines.
Whether from coastal regions or mountains, darker or fresher, Carménère proves to be a charming and versatile grape capable of producing fine wines under the right direction as is the case at Terra Noble wines.