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Carmenère

Rayun CarmenereBeen awhile since my last post! A lot has happened – my longtime girlfriend Lyndsey and I finally got engaged, we traveled to Guatemala and Belize, and my cat learned how to jump through hoops. So many excellent reasons to party have accumulated that I’ve been too busy partying to post! But the time for delaying is over, and today’s critique concerns an affordable wine that suits just about any dinner party or similar occasion, particularly if you have something to celebrate. Like my life in general, this bottle is full of surprising enjoyments.

If you’re looking for a wine to pour with loved ones during Sunday dinner, you’re probably looking for a red that has exactly that right balance of friendly fruit, depth and body. If you’re me, and it’s tonight, you’re having lamb. The ideal wine partner for lamb will generally exhibit a couple of characteristics: dark fruit, earthy or peppery undertones, and nice balance. In other words, you’re looking for Carmenère.

I have described Carmenère’s intriguing history in Chile before, wherein growers often thought they were dealing with Merlot for over a century; it was only formally recognized as a grape variety in 1998. Fortunately for wine drinkers everywhere, production was not discontinued after they discovered otherwise; rather, Chile remains the world’s primary producer of this ancient French relative of Cabernet Sauvignon. Carmenère now grows chiefly in the Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley, and Maipo Province. In fact, the name ‘Carmenère’ is derived from the French word carmin, meaning crimson. It is indeed a beautiful deep crimson in the glass, and can often be difficult to distinguish from Cabernet or Merlot in blind tastings.

Tonight’s wine, the 2010 Geo Wines Rayun Carmenère, hails from the Rapel Valley. It’s a classic example of what this grape can do in a drier, warmer microclimate. A lovely crimson in color, with aromas of blackcurrants, plum, green bell pepper, and earth. Medium-bodied, lush, with more dark fruit on the mouth tending towards cocoa and earthiness towards the long finish. Really a spectacular value at $11. Pair with any kind of red meat that you’re roasting, and bring friends, family, or loved ones.

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Deep in the mountains of Chile, far inland in the Central Valley, lies the valley of Maipo. Here the intrepid taster can explore the most prestigious, oldest wineries in Chile, exemplified by wines made predominantly from red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. Though I don’t drink it often, this grape, the fine Carmenère grape, produces some of my favorite wines. Its aromas tend towards green bell pepper and bramble, solid earthy notes which complement a smooth mouthful of dark berry flavors, Merlot-like cola notes, and soft tannins. It is a grape that is sometimes hard to find on its own; usually Carmenère is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but pure varietal offerings are breaking ground among American wine drinkers, who find it an attractive midpoint between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body, but with some novel characteristics. Carmenère is quickly becoming one of my go-to winter wines. I also just enjoy saying the word Carmenère ( pronounced “kar-muh-NER”) aloud. Carmenère. Carmenère. Carmenère.

What I find most interesting about Carmenère is its lost-and-found history. Originally planted in Bordeaux in France, the grape went out of style due to its irregular ripening schedule in that region’s climate, and after the Phylloxera louse devastated the French wine industry in the 1880’s, Carmenère all but vanished from the scene. During an international boom in Merlot sales in the 1990’s (treated with great derision in the movie Sideways), the grape was rediscovered in Chile when winemakers realized they’d been billing it as Merlot all along. Once this was established, farmers began treating the wine with the particular care it requires – Carmenère needs to ripen on the vine for a much longer period than many other red varietals, otherwise they develop intense bell pepper and vegetal aromas which, when overdone, are extremely unattractive. Chile’s long growing season proved the perfect incubator for winning wines. Quality jumped, and at present this wine offers serious contenders for international fame at many price points. Chile has over 15,000 acres of vineyard devoted exclusively to this grape. Anyone can enjoy a bottle of this wine as a perfect introduction to the nuances of Chilean viniculture.

The 2007 Chono Carmenère is a perhaps among my top five favorite wines under $15, and this from someone whose forum is devoted to wines under $30. Alvaro Espinoza, the owner and winemaker for Chono, practices organic winemaking techniques, and it shows. When poured, it shows a deep ruby red in the glass, intense and extremely pleasing. Distinct green bell pepper aromas waft up immediately, along with seriously earthy elements, forest floor and so on. The pepper notes gradually diminish, and are supplanted by nice rich berry fruit. Soft mouthfeel, silky tannins, with more dark cherries and notes of smoke and spice from time spent aging in oak, but the acidity also snaps, making the medium finish nice and quenching. Superbly earthy, approachable and robust, yet downright complex for a wine at this price: $12. I would pair this offering from Chono with just about any charred red meat: barbecue, herb-encrusted roast lamb, or t-bone steak sizzling out of the pan.


Hailing from the high-altitude Maipo Valley in Chile, so named for the river producing the alluvial planes on which the vines grow, this Carmenère is a fine example of the grape’s potential even at a lower price range. As previously noted, I find that Chilean wine is a good value in general, although it tends to lack the lean acidity of its Argentinean counterpoints, something I prefer. In certain wines, though, everything comes together perfectly. The 2006 Chono Carmenère is a solid companion to summer or fall cooking, especially if you plan on using a barbecue.

Although wines made from Carmenère can taste green and brambly with insufficient ripening or poor handling, I saw none of that happening. A deep red in the glass. The nose was charged with bright red cherries and other berries, and spice: black pepper, cinnamon, along with hints of tobacco. More berry fruit in the mouth, especially cherries and blueberries, with a supple texture from the tannins; oak resulting from 60% of the wine being aged 10 months in barrel was well-integrated and balanced, lending hints of vanilla. Great finish, and seemingly designed for seasoned red meats on the grill – lamb, filet mignon, or t-bone. $13.