The Curious Case of Carmenère Article -
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The Curious Case of Carmenère

A Chilean trademark.

In addition to popular varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Chile has had a lot of success with Carmenère. In fact, like California and the Zinfandel grape, Chile has fashioned Carmenere into something of a trademark varietal.

At one time, Carmenere grew in the vineyards of Bordeaux, where it was known by the name Grand Vidure. No more, however.

In the 19th century, a virulent root louse, Phylloxera, arrived in France and laid waste to the country's vineyards. When French growers returned to their devastated vineyards to start again, they did not deem Carmenere worthy of replanting. After all, Carmenere was susceptible to Phylloxera and other diseases and didn't handle Bordeaux's humid climate very well. Essentially banished from the vineyards of Bordeaux, the grape was thought to be virtually extinct.

We pick up the story in the Southern Hemisphere, in Chile, where Carmenere vines had been shipped prior to the Phylloxera epidemic. In the dry, Phylloxera-free vineyards around Santiago, the vines prospered. Gradually the distinction between Carmenere and another, similar-looking Bordeaux grape, Merlot, became fuzzier and fuzzier until the distinction was completely lost.

As a result, Chilean wine labeled "Merlot" was just as likely to be Carmenere, or perhaps an unintended mixture of the two as the vines often sat side by side in the vineyards.

Though it was long understood that Chilean Merlot had a unique character, Carmenere continued to go incognito in Chilean vineyards until it was unmasked by genetic testing in 1994.

Since then, many Chilean growers have embraced the grape, which remains right at home in the country's warm, dry climate.

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