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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Sit Down with Ignacio Recabarren

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 14, 2008 2:16pm ET

I sat down earlier this week with Ignacio Recabarren, one of Chile’s leading winemakers, to get caught up on his latest Carmín de Peumo project, a red wine made primarily from the Carmenère grape. After making a name for himself producing the Domus Aurea Cabernet at Viña Quebrada de Macul, Recabarren found a home working for Concha y Toro, where he’s been in charge of their high-end Terrunyo line since the '97 vintage. The Carmín de Peumo is the winery's latest high-end bottling, which debuted in the 2003 vintage.

Carmenère is a former component in red Bordeaux, where it thrived before being wiped out by phylloxera during the late 19th century. The grape managed to hide out in Chile for about a hundred years before being “rediscovered” in the mid-1990s, most notably by Álvaro Espinoza.

Eventually Carmenère became the hopeful darling of many Chilean vintners who had hoped it would be their country’s signature grape (like Malbec in Argentina or Grüner Veltliner in Austria, for example), giving Chilean wine something to distinguish itself from other wine-producing regions. Growers began purifying their vineyards by isolating their Carmenère vines, which had often been lumped in with Merlot or other red varieties. Thanks to this newfound interest in the grape, plantings of Carmenère jumped from 825 acres in 1997 to over 17,000 acres in 2006 (though the increase is just as much thanks to vines being reclassified as Carmenère as it is to new plantings).

But Carmenère’s penchant for producing overtly green, herbal flavors when picked before fully ripe has held the grape back. Carmenère ripens very slowly, so patience, with harvest stretching into May (the equivalent of November for the Northern Hemisphere) is critical.

In addition, even when ripe, Carmenère has yet to fully prove it can be a stand-alone variety. It does very well in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, where its plum and tobacco notes and soft, silky tannins work in harmony with other grapes. But with just a few notable exceptions (including Viña Montes’ Purple Angel and Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta), it has yet to consistently produce outstanding wines when it is the lead varietal.

With his new Carmín de Peumo bottling, Recabarren is hoping to change that. The wine is sourced from a single block of 25-year-old Carmenère vines located in Peumo, a south-facing spot located in the Cachapoal Valley, midway between the Maipo and Colchagua valleys. Peumo is far enough away from the cooling influence of the Andes to be a warmer area than Maipo during the day. But Peumo’s nighttime temperatures are just as cool as Maipo's, which in turn keeps the area cooler than Colchagua overall. It's this "in between" climate that allows for the extra hang-time the grape needs to fully ripen, but without roasting the thin-skinned variety, leading to jammy, overly soft wines.

The 2005 Carmín de Peumo is just the second vintage (no 2004 was made) and it is slated for release in the coming months. There were just 1,000 cases produced of the wine, which also contains small doses of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wine received 16 months aging in 100 percent new oak barrels (a decrease from the 20 months that the 2003 received) and it’s remarkably silky and fine-grained, with layers of black currant, tobacco and graphite. It drinks like a modern-style Bordeaux, combining depth, precision and finesse, though it retains a distinctly Chilean feel, with a rich, plush finish that shows a loamy hint underneath. I preferred the '05 to the ’03, which is noticeably toastier, no doubt from the extra time in oak. In contrast, the ’05 shows more grace than the ‘03, but without sacrificing any of its latent power.

It’s an impressive step up from the debut '03, which I rated 92 points upon release. The '05 version ably demonstrates Carmenère’s ability to produce world-class wines. Proper site selection is a critical element to producing outstanding and potentially classic Carmenère however, and Chile is nowhere near having a critical mass of properly situated Carmenère vines that can produce wines of this quality. And until that happens, the grape will struggle to fill a role as Chile’s signature grape, regardless of the success of a few top wines.

Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  May 14, 2008 2:54pm ET
To me, Chilean Carmenere is already a go-to daily wine. I think Concha-y-Tora's $8 bottling is a consistent steal at that price. I have yet to see any more "serious" Carmenere on store shelves though.
James Molesworth
May 14, 2008 2:59pm ET
Ken: Yes, Concha's value bottling is good as well. But in general the grape is very inconsistent - there are as many harsh, green versions out there as there are good ones. Until Chilean vintners get the vineyard base sorted out for their Carmenere, this is going to be a problem...
Richard Robertson
Charleston, SC —  May 14, 2008 9:56pm ET
James, hate to change the subject but had my first bottle of the Don Melchor 2005 this evening and wow, what a big wine. Definitely has the structure and balance to age and is definitely very young right now. Needs to decant for 4-6 hours but definitely shows it's power and future finesse. Clos Apalta is one of my favorite Chilean wines but I agree with you that many Carmenere's can be disappointing as a stand alone varietal. Don't write too much about these wines as I like the price point and the quality for the Concha y Toro and Clos Apalta wines. For the high level of case production for each of these wines they compare favorably with great Bordeaux for a fraction of the price. Would love to try the Carm¿de Peumo but don't see this one often in Charleston SC. And yes I drink rose and recently found a Malbec rose at my local wine shop that I enjoyed immensely. Of course I had it in the privacy of my own home and my 8 and 6 year old boys couldn't believe that I was drinking pink wine, they now proclaim "mommy" as the "boss of the house". Definitely a sign that I've been drinking too many "big reds" and need to find a better balance. Keep up the great work!!!
Jose Luiz de Paula Eduardo Filho
Sao Paulo BR —  May 15, 2008 10:19am ET
You should try Reserva Caemenere 06 from Errazuriz, much better than Concha and at the same price. Or the Kai Carmenere 05, their high-end Carmenere, that costs 5 times more ...
Ramon J Vega Sr
west dundee, Il. —  May 16, 2008 7:20pm ET
I agree with the gentleman from Texas.I've been drinking Concha y Toro for a decade now.Excellent value with quality. I would like to try carmenere from others if i could find it. Please help with that and keep up the great work.
Jerome D Smith
May 17, 2008 9:04am ET
Carmenere IS becoming a signature varietal for Chile,and in the hands on a dedicated Carm winemaker who pays attention to site, hangtime, pre-fermentation maceration vs. post-....etc. etc., Carmenere offers a unique (and delicicious!) flavor profile- something I think is admirable (the world does not need more "international-style" Cab!). I drink them all the time and I am findng they are improving rapidly. Carmenere is ideal with smoked meat, duck, lamb, wood-fired anything. This grape is the future of Chile.
Alex Portela
MIAMI-FL —  May 17, 2008 12:21pm ET
BEST CARMENERE LATELY : TERRUNYO CARMENERE FROM CONCHA Y TORO, YOU WILL NOT FIND IT IN THE SUPERMARKET, $ 12 A BOTTLE, AWESOME.
James Molesworth
May 19, 2008 9:14am ET
Alex: The Terrunyo line from CyT usually retails for around $30 - so either you've got an amazing price there, or it's something else...
James Molesworth
May 19, 2008 11:23am ET
Richard: Most of the initial release of the Carmin de Peumo went to 'on premise' accounts (restaurants). Hopefully with the increase in production (from 500 to 1,000 cases), a little more will be marked for retail accounts...

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