Carmenere: 'The Lost Grape of Bordeaux

For nearly a century ... Carmenere was lost to viticultural history.

By Veronique Barretto aka “The Ceci Sipper” Author of Vinously Speaking Wine Blog Done For Course: Viticulture for Business Professionals MSc Wine Business – Burgundy School of Business

Actually, it had just been hiding on the slopes of the Andes in Chile, confused for a clone of the Merlot varietal.

Carmenere is also grown in: Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, California, Washington, Australia & New Zealand ..but Chile is the only one that can grow it on original rootstock.

Origins of Carmenere grape:
Bordeaux' vineyards (Medoc/Graves) pre-Phylloxera, where it is known as 'Grand Vidure' ~ or ~ May be 'Biturica', the vine of ancient Roman praise and the name the Romans called the city that became Bordeaux. 'Biturica' originated in Iberia (according to Pliny the Elder).

Although credited with aiding the reputations of some of the Medoc's best estates. It was disfavored by Bordeaux vignerons because: the grape didn’t ripen regularly (Bordeaux’s climate) ●loss of berries shortly after flowering, resulting in low yields ● susceptibility to coulure/shatter*

(*result of metabolic reactions to weather conditions that causes a failure of grapes to develop after flowering, resulting in loss of berries shortly after flowering)

Thus it was not replanted after the phylloxera outbreak of the 1880s. To this day, there are no commercially significant plantings in Bordeaux, total surface is limited to a dozen hectares or so.

So what happened? Along with other Bordeaux varietals, cuttings were shipped to Chile in 1850's, just missing the onset of Phylloxera in Europe. ~ but ~

Vineyard layouts/records were lax during the 19th century. Plantings were done haphazardly and Carmenère was mixed in vineyards with Merlot and because it shared some superficial similarities of appearance, Carmenere was 'lost'.

As Chile began to export more in the late 1980s they started to gain a reputation as a producer of great 'Merlot' ...

but it was noted that their 'Merlot' had more color, intensity, luxurious texture, with a stronger, more positive and slightly spicier flavor profile than other regions could produce. At first this was attributed to clonal variations, with the theory that perhaps Chile had evolved a sub-variety of Merlot.

In the early 1990’s, French amphelographers noticed differences between the 'Merlot' vines in the vineyards. They started to differentiate the two vines by painting the stocks of the one type red. The first clue they noticed was in early spring during the first week or two of the growing season as the leaves begin to push. It was observed that the sprout of what is now the real Merlot, exhibited a little bit of red which in time turns to white. In contrast, the Carmenère shoots are very red, and remain so. It was apparent that the 'Merlot' was in fact 2 varieties.

How is Carmenere different from Merlot in the vineyard?
Its less adaptable, requiring careful site selection, handling and harvesting. ● Vigorous growth pattern = more stringent pruning, in the spring & summer. ● It buds & flowers 3-7 days later than Merlot, also yield is lower. ● In youth, its leaves have a red hue underneath while Merlot's are white. ● Its leaf is oval trending to round; the Merlot leaf resembles more Cabernet Sauvignon leaves, with deeper serration on the edges. ●The ripe Merlot has softer skin, while Carmenère is more sturdier. ●In the fall, Merlot leaves turn yellow, while Carmenère leaves turn red. ● It ripens two to three weeks later than Merlot. ●In cases where varieties are mixed in the vineyards, at harvest it is possible to identify the vines and pick them at different times. If picked too early, Carmenere will taste vegetal, and if picked too late will be flat.

Merlot Carmenere


In 1994, Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier's renowned school of Oenology confirmed the 'unknown' varietal was the 'lost Bordeaux varietal', Carménère, by using DNA mapping and matching against the Carmenère vines that had been preserved at French viticultural stations.

Once vintners recognized their error, they changed their farming techniques to play to the strengths of this variety by letting the grapes hang longer on the vines. (Carmenère grapes are among the last grapes to ripen). In 1998 the Chilean Dept. of Agriculture officially recognized Carmenère as a distinct variety, enabling the bottling of wines under the Carmenère name.

Why is Carmenere at 'home' in Chile?

A “viticultural paradise” due to its geographic barriers: the Atacama Desert, the Andes Mountains, the Patagonian ice fields, and the Pacific Ocean.

Cooling effect of the Humboldt Current that begins near Antarctica and flows up the coast. It produces clouds and fog, but little or no precipitation. Due to above, Chile is the only major wine-producing country in the world totally untouched by the dual plagues of phylloxera and a downy mildew, Oidium, two of the most destructive diseases ever to affect grape vines. However, there is issue with nematodes, powdery mildew, botrytis bunch rot, and verticillium wilt.

Why is Carmenere at 'home' in Chile? (cont'd) The growing season in Chile is perfect for Carmenère. Carménère favors a long growing season in moderate to warm climates. ●Chile’s rocky clay soils have a poor water-holding capacity, it helps control the vigor of the vines. Planted on the hillside, Carmenère ripens extremely well, and becomes soft and fleshy. Best soil is not too rich and not too poor. ● Carmenere is very suseptible to amount of water so it benefits from regualted watering from irrigation techniques made possible by melting snow from the Andes.

Vine Training for Carmenere

Carmenere Growing Cycle in Chile Pruning - July - Sept Budding - Early October Flowering - November Veraison - Late January Harvest - May

Carmenere wines are described as:

Juicy, lush, dark colors, plummy fruit, low acid and velvet-soft tannins, richly extracted with blackberry, black coffee, cigar box notes and spices. ●Has been called "Bordeaux-like" & “Cabernet Sauvignon in silk pajamas” ●Given its fruity characteristics, it can handle oak and reportedly ages well in American or French oak.

Carmenere grows: ●Chiefly in the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley, and Maipo Province. ● 15,000+ vineyard acres devoted to Carmenère. Future for Carmenere: ●Aconcagua Valley, the most northerly of the regions but one of the warmest. ●Two sub-regions of Colchagua, the Lolol and Apalta regions.

In 2009, two of Chile's leading universities, with funding from Viña Casa Silva (a major producer), began a two-year study of Carmenère. The research seeks causes and cures for the grape's undesirable tendencies of poor fruit set, late ripening, and high pyrazine content. The project has identified more than 60 clones, with wide variations of these characteristics.

No variety says “Chile” like Carmenère! “ Carmenère is truly what makes Chile different, and it’s on points of differentiation that identity is created” - Sandy Block, M.W.

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