Stroll the Chilean wine aisle of your local wine shop, and you'll find a variety there that you won't see in most of the other sections of the store: Carménère. Although it's considered one of the six original red grape varieties of Bordeaux, France—along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot—Carménère is now a rarity in France. Not so in Chile, which today produces the vast majority of it available on the wine market.
A while back, I picked up bottle of Glen Carlou Grand Classique ($17.95) from South Africa, not really knowing much about it, but always on the lookout for an interesting wine bargain. When I opened it, I was surprised. Remember Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"? This wine, I thought, is made for barbecues. It had a smoky fragrance and flavor that seems to be a match made in heaven for smoked meats, poultry and fish. However, this Glen Carlou is not considered Carménère.
That's why I was taken aback by the smokiness of the Glen Carlou: I've come to associate smoky flavors in wines mostly with the Carménère grape. And yet, there was no Carménère listed in the winemaker's notes for the Glen Carlou, which is a blend of the aforementioned Bordeaux red grapes, minus Carménère. So, I was surprised not to find any Carménère in this smoky wine.
Having said that, I'd estimate that something like one-third to one-half of all "big" red wine descriptions from wine writers say that the wine "contains a hint of smokiness," or something along those lines (I'm guilty, too). There's also typically a mention of spice, but that's another story. Well, with many of the bigger and bolder reds, you certainly can detect a hint of smoke. But nowhere will you find it more front-and-center than with wine made from Carménère.
The Carménère grape looks and tastes much like Merlot. And in Chile, the latter is often mistaken for the former. In fact, a DNA study of Chilean Merlot which was completed in 1998 determined that 50 percent of what was thought to be a Merlot clone going into Chile's Merlot wines was actually Carménère. It wouldn't surprise me at all if that's what happened with the Grand Classique—perhaps some of the "Merlot" in it is actually Carménère?
Anyway, much of the Carménère you see today—it all but disappeared in France during the 1800s due to phylloxera—does come from Chile, where it's been correctly identified. According to the late Bebe Hutter, former marketing manager for Baron Philippe de Rothschild, "Chile is trying to make of [Carménère] what New Zealand did with Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina did with Malbec."
So, Chile is the best place to get a handle on smoky, earthy, dark Carménère. It's not a wine for the timid. If you're interested in trying some Carménère to see if you like it, the good news is that it can be fairly inexpensive. For $9.99 you can snag a bottle of Concha y Toro's Carménère Casillero del Diablo, and Chilean winery Santa Rita has a Carménère called "120" that sells for $12.99. I'm a fan of Anderra Carménère ($10.99), and really love Montes Alpha Carménère ($22.95).
But beware, because while good, ripe Carménère has that tinge of smoke that pairs so well with barbecue, underripe Carménère sort of has an icky vegetal green-pepper flavor that's not so appealing. I suggest trolling your Chilean wine aisle and picking up a couple different Carménère to try out side-by-side. CW