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Carmenère, The Chilean Merlot

Lundi 06 Juillet 2020

Pendant des décennies des viticulteurs Chiliens ont cultivé des vignes de "Merlot", sans savoir qu'elles étaient en fait un vieux cépage Bordelais: le Carmenère...

Carmenère, The Chilean Merlot

There is a good pub quiz question which catches out a lot of people: "Ampelography is the study of what?" It is in fact the identification and classification of grapevines. I thought about this because we recently added a grape with a fascinating history to our list: Carmenère. We have a lovely wine from Domaine l'Arjolle made from 100% Carmenère.Grown extensively in the Médoc in the 18th century, it was one of the six original varieties of Bordeaux wines (along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec). It gained a strong reputation for quality wines, but in the 19thcentury when quantity became more important it fell out of favour because yields were unreliable and often low. After phylloxera wiped out the vineyards it wasn't replanted at all and was assumed to have become extinct. 
However, the burgeoning wine industry in Chile had imported many vines from France pre-phylloxera, some of which were Carmenère. The problem was that the Chilean winegrowers thought that they were Merlot vines due to the similarity of the leaves and berries. The vines grew and prospered in the Chilean valleys, protected from phylloxera by the Andes and the Pacific. For over 130 years Chilean Merlot was produced, with much of it coming from Carmenère vines. People did notice taste differences (Carmenère is a more herbaceous wine than Merlot, with the bell pepper aromas closer to Cabernet grapes), but this was put down to the typicity of the Chilean climate and terroir.
It wasn't until 1994 that the error was finally documented. Jean Michel Boursiquot, a French researcher was walking in the Chilean vineyards when he noticed that some of the "Merlot" grapes had twisted stamens. This meant that they couldn't be Merlot, and consequent DNA tests proved that they were in fact the long lost Carmenère. Since then Carmenère has become a mainstay of the Chilean wine industry and is now grown around the world.DNA profiling has shown that there are also over 4000 hectares of Carmenère in northern Italy. They had been assumed to be Cabernet franc. Some planting has taken place in Bordeaux, but the vines of Domaine l'Arjolle are the only ones outside of that area in France. It's not a cheap wine by Languedoc standards but is well worth a try.    

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