In the early 18th century, carmenère was one of six noble grapes grown in Bordeaux, France, and helped establish the reputation of the region. In the 1850s, the root louse phylloxera decimated the vineyards of Europe, and when replanting ensued, carmenère was omitted because it was particularly susceptible to the disease and a propensity for late and uneven ripening. The grape was subsequently thought to be extinct.
However, some carmenère vines that were thought to be merlot had been shipped to Chile pre-phylloxera and were planted at Chile’s oldest winery, Viña Carmen. Carmenère became widely planted, but it wasn’t until 1994 that a French ampelographer discovered that thousands of acres of merlot were actually carmenére. In 2014, carmenère celebrated its 20th birthday as a named and permitted grape variety in Chile. It has become one of Chile’s signature grape varieties and Chile is home to 97 percent of the world’s carmenère plantings.
Montes winemaker Aurelio Montes has been working with carmenère since it was first correctly identified in Chile. His winery has a stellar reputation with this grape and after tasting the wine, I understand why. Very dark purple in color, the wine exudes aromas of black fruits, leather, black olives, and anise. Smooth tannins give it a refined and satisfying texture in the mouth. The wine reveals flavors of black raspberry, black currant, spice, black tea, and dark chocolate, and a finishing burst of dark fruits.
The Montes Alpha Chile Carmenère is a mid-tier offering priced at $22 at Total Wine & More (totalwine.com), which has one of the largest selections of carmenère in Orange County. At the table, the wine is quite food-friendly, especially with mildly spiced Indian foods such as lamb or chicken curry and tandoori chicken, or French dishes such as cassoulet and beef bourguignon.
A higher-tier offering from Montes, Purple Angel Carmenère ($59), is widely praised and also available at Total Wine & More.