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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Karma carmenere

One of the great things about wine trips is the chance to learn more. Having been to Chile in December 2008 courtesy of Wines of Chile, this current trip has given me the chance to confirm some of the things I learned about then and also to help me deepen my knowledge. One of the outcomes of this past week's trip is a better understanding of carmenere, the almost uniquely Chilean red grape.
Carmenere is a gape that has been grown in Bordeaux for centuries. In the early 1990s it was discovered that much of the "merlot" grown in Chile was, in fact, carmenere. This gave the Chilean wine industry a few things to think about - how do you make good carmenere and, more importantly, should you?
Well, the guys at Carmen decided "Yes" to the latter question and put the varietal name on a label around 1998 or so and ever since then the Chileans have been working hard on getting carmenere right. This is tricky as carmenere had a tendency, at the time, to end up being green and chunky - not undrinkable, indeed often quite good, but also not really in line with consumer tastes worldwide.
Part of the problem is that carmenere is quite vigorous - that is, it produces a lot of leaves. This results in shaded bunches of grapes. As a consequence, a group of flavour compounds known as methoxypyrazines (which give the green flavour to wines, especially sauvignon blanc) fail to disappear fully from the fruit and so the final wine ends up green and unripe tasting.
The way around this has been quite interesting as normally a grapegrower would look to plant the vines in less fertile soils. However, carmenere doesn't react particularly well to poor soils so, paradoxically, it tends to be planted in clay soils which retain quite a bit of water. The reason this works is that carmenere requires a long growing season (often being picked in May rather than March/April) and it needs this extra water. The obvious problem of potential vigour in a damp soil is overcome by using different training systems - I saw both Geneva Double Curtain and Scott Henry last week. Finally, carmenere reacts well to big day/night variations in temperature (diurnal variation to be technical) developing lovely flavours as a result and losing those pyrazine characters. This is in strong contrast to merlot, which in situations with big diurnal variation stays quite green as there is no major degradation of malic acid once the fruit cools down overnight.
So, what does carmenere taste like? Well, given the light levels in Chile it should always be deeply coloured. The nose should have characters of dark berry fruits, usually black fruits, with a hint of spice such as cinnamon or even star anise and a slight note of chocolate. On the palate it should be remarkably soft and round, with supple acidity and rich, well-integrated tannins. Fruit should be a mix of dark fruits, chocolate and spice and some juicy plum fruits on the finish, typically quite long.
For me, carmenere wines are quite typically Chilean - friendly and gentle but with great depth. While they are unlikely to be the finest that Chile has to offer - cabernet sauvignon-based wines currently hold that title and both syrah and pinot noir could yet get there - it does offer very good value wines at a wide range of prices. The wines are very consumer-friendly due to the soft tannin and acid structure and the ripe, rounded fruits. Good karma? No, good carmenere!

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