If wine has a grape-shaped equivalent of Lord Lucan, Amelia Earhart or George Mallory, it’s Carmenere.
This grape was a familiar and well renowned part of the landscape in Bordeaux for centuries until phylloxera struck in the 19th century. Growers weren’t keen to replant it because it had unreliable yields and struggled more than other vines to adapt successfully to what ended up being the solution to phylloxera: American rootstock. Meantime, Carmenere vines had been disseminated to far-flung corners of the winemaking globe including northern Italy, Chile and even China.
But then…it performed the most astonishing disappearing act.
Effectively, Carmenere went undercover. It took on assumed names: in Chile it was subsumed under the ‘Merlot’ moniker (albeit known locally as ‘merlot chileno’). It was also sold as Merlot or Cabernet Franc in Italy, where it was also called Black Bordeaux or Old Cabernet. In China it went as Cabernet Gernischt or Shelongzhu.
Carmenere’s cover was finally blown in 1994 when ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot formally identified it in a Chilean vineyard. Since then, Chile has lead the charge with Carmenere, making often voluptuous, black-fruited wines and characterful blends. More recently, there has been a drive to understand and explore what remains a misunderstood and under-valued grape variety, as well as promoting its natural diversity of styles.
Carmenere, in short, remains a fascinating story still in the telling.
[Peter Richards MW on Carmenere in Decanter magazine]