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.