As far as obscure grape varieties go, carmenere is likely way up the list for all but the most geeky wine lovers.
Carmenere is a red variety that originated in France’s famed Bordeaux region. A distant relative of Merlot, carmenere was used primarily as a blending grape. While it was a key component in wines from the famed Left Bank regions of Médoc and Graves, it didn’t grow particularly well, and after the phylloxera plague that swept through Europe in the 1860s, many believed carmenere was all but extinct.
In the mid-1990s, carmenere was found in Chile. As it turns out, cuttings of what long had been identified as merlot had been sent to Chile and planted in the 1850s. This error preserved carmenere inadvertently. Just as malbec is the signature wine of neighboring Argentina, now carmenere is the wine of choice in Chile.
After its rediscovery, cuttings were brought in through California, and eventually made its way up the West Coast, being planted in Oregon and Washington, most importantly in the Walla Walla Valley and the Horse Heaven Hills.
Carmenere is an interesting wine with a fascinating story behind it Here are five of the best Northwest examples of carmenere. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop, or contact the wineries directly.
Bartholomew Winery 2015 Carménère, Red Mountain, $35: Early on in his career, Bart Fawbush used rose of carmenere from venerable Konnowac Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Here, he’s using carm from Kiona’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard. Predictably, the results are superb. Classic aromas of bell pepper and black pepper are joined by blackberry, spice and vanilla. On the palate, expect more of the same, wrapped with smooth tannins as a savory nibble of Kalamata olive leads into a creamy finish of Bailey’s.
Jones of Washington 2014 Wahluke Slope Vineyards Estate Carménère, Wahluke Slope, $30: The second-generation Jones family owns and operates 11 vineyards in the Columbia Basin, but they have carmenere planted at just one of their eight sites on the Wahluke Slope. Ripeness is never a factor there, so there’s not as much herbaceousness here. Rather, Victor Palencia offers a profile of darker red fruit with a pinch of white pepper and baking spice as smoky chocolate and smooth tannins combine for a truly elegant finish. The Jones family has scaled back its carmenere program, so reach out to their Quincy tasting room as well as the Pybus Public Market in Wenatchee.
Zerba Cellars 2016 Carménère, Walla Walla Valley, $45: Fruit grown by the Zerba family of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, led to multiple “Outstanding!” wines during this winter’s tasting by Wine Press Northwest. Their new winemaker, Brent Roberts, took over for Doug Nierman and carried this carmenere to the finish line with a flourish. Classic hints of black pepper are joined by black cherry and blackberry jam before giving way to blueberry acidity, suave tannins and a rather elegant bit of milk chocolate in the finish.
Spangler Vineyards 2016 Carménère, Southern Oregon, $35: Club members at the reserve level in Pat Spangler’s hierarchy won’t be able to get their hands on this beauty until this fall. It will be worth the wait from last year’s Oregon Winery of the Year in the eyes of Wine Press Northwest. While the 2016 vintage wasn’t as hot as the prior year, it was warm enough to achieve ripeness at Quail Run Vineyards’ Crater View parcel. Dark notes of blackberry, black pepper and allspice turn a bit brighter on the palate. Black cherry, red plum and cassis lead into sturdy yet age-worthy tannins.
Martinez & Martinez Winery 2015 Dion Carlo Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills, $38: Andrew Martinez’s father has been working vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills since 1981, including his own blocks near famed Phinny Hill. Sergio’s son produces a complex example of carmenere, which begins with a telltale dusting of black pepper and other spice rack components. Nicely managed bright tannins play deliciously with fruit-forward flavors of blackberry, plum and dark cherry, a combination that sets the table for a long finish.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.