The Lost Grape of Bordeaux
Carmenère disappeared from France in the 19th century and reappeared in Chile 100 years later.
There were a few wines that I thought were pretty good. I liked the 2009 Apaltagua Reserva Carmenère ($10) for its restrained fruit and notes of menthol and green pepper. Its stablemate, the 2008 Apaltagua Envero Gran Reserva Carmenère ($15), was also pleasant; a blend of 93 percent carmenère and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, it had a nice meaty richness plus a welcome dash of minerality. The 2009 Lapostolle Casa Carmenère (which has a bit of merlot in it) was decent, too, and the $13 price tag accentuated its virtues.
But overall, this was one sorry parade of wines. I recognize that Chile is an emerging region (even though its winemaking tradition stretches back some 500 years), and there are certainly fine wines being made there. But the gap between all the buzz about carmenère and what was actually in the glass was yawning. At the very least, vintners ought to dial back the oak. Why turn carmenère into just another generic, egregiously woody New World wine? Why celebrate this viticultural windfall only to completely smother the character of the grape? In an article several years ago, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov expressed similar frustration and issued an emphatic plea that bears repeating: Let carmenère be carmenère!
And actually, a winery cleverly named Clos Ouvert is doing just that. Located in the Maule Valley, it is run by a pair of French expats (an ironic twist on carmenère's history). I discovered the 2008 Clos Ouvert Carmenère Loncomilla ($26) after tasting some two dozen other carmenères, and it was truly like finding water in a desert. Made from organically farmed grapes (100 percent carmenère) and raised in older, neutral oak barrels, the Loncomilla opened with an enthralling blast of green olive, along with notes of leather, black currant, and herbs; it initially seemed like a dead ringer for a Syrah from France's northern Rhone valley. The wine was full-bodied, with pleasingly austere fruit, a terrific savory edge, good structure, and a long, peppery finish. Here, finally, was an interesting, distinctive, thoroughly delicious carmenère, a carmenère that lived up to the grape's fascinating pedigree. One word of advice to readers: You should uncork the Loncomilla an hour or so before you plan to drink it in order to give it a chance to breathe, and decanting it would be a good idea. And a suggestion to other Chilean winemakers: Pick up a bottle of the Loncomilla. (It is easy lifting—it comes in a nice, standard-weight bottle.) Give the wine a try, and see what you think.