Chile’s answer to Malbec: Carmenere

Lamb curry at Neela’s in Downtown Napa

Carmenere changes the way I view Chile as a wine region, that is, as a high quality everyday wine producing region.  To be a ‘great’ wine region, producers need to grow and make wines that are so distinctive by grape variety, winemaking and character that if tasted blind, one could say for example, this syrah is from the Northern Rhone.  I couldn’t say that in the past with Chile’s New World style international varietal wines.    But with carmenere, Chile produces a signature wine that outclasses even carmenere’s traditional home, cool climate Bordeaux.  In Chile’s sunny and dry climate, carmenere makes a full-bodied, luscious wine with concentrated black fruit, intriguing spice and sweet tannins.

But quality winegrowing still matters with this vigorous grape variety.  If it doesn’t ripen fully, it can taste very green and loamy, and with its naturally low-medium acidity, it can become flabby if left on the vine too long.  One carmenere that I tasted recently comes from quality pioneer Montes.  Their new release 2008 Montes Alpha Carmenere Colchagua Valley ($24) was just irresistable.  It’s a very well-made full-bodied wine, clean and balanced, with super-concentrated black plum fruit infused with cocoa and espresso, velvety tannins and long finish.  It expresses carmenere’s characteristic accents of pepper and indian spice, which differentiates it from Argentina’s ubiquitous malbec.

It is carmenere’s spicy aspect that inspired the Wines of Chile UK office to launch a “Carmenere is Made for Curry” campaign earlier this year which pairing had been fascinating me ever since.  The problem as many people know is that curries are made so many different ways.  The UK campaign was focused more on Indian styles of curry vs. say Thai curries which include green and red curries prepared with coconut milk.  These Thai curries would pair well with a full-bodied, creamy but unoaked chardonnay.

I’ve tried carmenere with richer, savory Indian curries which is I think is a little too much of a good thing.  I casually asked Michael Mina Wine Director Rajat Parr at a recent Beaujolais tasting what he liked to pair with curry and he said old-school northern Rhone, which I tend to agree with.  Traditional northern Rhone syrahs have the same black fruit and pepper notes as carmenere, but is fresher and lighter than a New World carmenere, cutting through the richness of the curry.  Anyway, I don’t think carmenere should be promoted as a wine that pairs with a flavor profile so narrow as curry.  It’s a wine that is not only flexible with a variety of dishes but one that is distinctive on its own.