Chile celebrated its National Day on the 18 th November with a grand party hosted by Ambassador Jorge Heine and his wife Norma at the Olive Bar and Restaurant a day earlier. Guests, majority of them diplomats seemed to love the different new venue and felt less stiff in spite of the occasion and formal attire. The beautiful Mediterranean ambience, Chilean and Olive snacks, vibrant Latin music and of course, cocktails and wines from Chile made the guests loosen up considerably.
Talking about wines, there were a number of quaffable varietals including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère from different producers. Out of habit, I interacted with several guests who swear by their glass of wine to quiz them about their wine preferences of the evening. Majority loved the Carmenère without knowing what was inside the bottle. Now, I have been a great admirer of this varietal for long and have always believed it has potential of being extremely popular with Indian palate due to its spicy flavour . I wasn't really surprised although Merlot has come out ahead on most occasions in the past because of the soft and fruity taste.
Carmenère is a Chilean grape of French origin. It was very much a part of the blend of Bordeaux top wines 150 years ago when its cuttings were also exported to Chile. When the dreadful phylloxera wiped out the French vineyards, they never went back to cultivating it when the replanting began. Fortunately, it kept alive in Chile like Malbec boomed in Argentina. It is a late ripening g rape that is harvested last in the season, in November, 6-8 weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which is an early ripening variety. Chile being in Southern Hemisphere, it is harvested in May when the sun is still shining and there is no threat to the crops. Weather in Bordeaux is so unpredictable and harsh that in some years this crop used to be totally wiped out before harvest forcing them to discontinue this grape as a part of the blend. Chile has no such problem as the weather there is fine and more consistent, El-Nino effect not withstanding.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon has taken over as the leading red wine grape in Chile, the black cherry flavoured Merlot has been the rising star. But by itself it does not make very exciting wines. Carmenère is generally blended in to it. And here is an interesting fact. Both Merlot and Carmenère look so much alike that only experts can tell the difference. Most Merlot wines of Chile have a substantial amount of this grape blended in them, which is mixed in the vineyard itself. Even otherwise, it is legal to blend Carmenère in Merlot and still label the wine a Merlot.
Carmenère makes delicious rich, fruity and soft structured lush wine, low in acidity and tannins with excellent colour and taste of bell peppers and coffee beans. It is this spicy taste which, I feel goes well with the Indian palate even more than the soft Merlots and complements spicy food which is not too hot. Due to lower tannins the wine does not require much ageing and can be drunk young and fresh, usually within 3-4 years.
Many wine producing countries have their signature grapes, especially in the new world that help them promote their wines as a nation. Australia has its Shiraz, New Zealand its Sauvignon Blanc. Even South Africa has its Pinotage and Argentina is known as a country of Malbec. I am willing to bet that India will become known as a country of Sauvignon Blanc in the very near future with Sulla, Grover and many newer wine producers working hard on this varietal. Carmenère could and should be projected as a grape identified with Chile and become their country brand ambassador. More and more producers are already labeling their wines as Carmenère, also known as Carmanelle or sold as Grand Verde and are taking its potential seriously. I have often suggested His Excellency to suggest it to the Chilean Associations of wine producers to promote this grape as the unique grape of Chile rather than hide behind the glory of a Merlot which is grown easily and I plenty in all wine producing countries and indeed regions. Dedicated and knowledgeable that he is about the booming wine trade and the importance of wine exports for the Chilean economy, one hopes that he will be able to press this view on the producers.
Meanwhile, here is a toast to His Excellency, Jorge Heine, and to our Chilean friends, especially those involved in producing value-for-money wines with a glass of Carmenère.