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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have heard that there was or is some confusion in Chile regarding the Merlot and Carmenère grapes. Apparently it was only fairly recently discovered that many of the Merlot grapes are actually Carmenère. What's the story?
—Chris H., Lafayette, La.
Carmenère is rarely found in Bordeaux today, but it was widely cultivated in the Medoc in the early 18th century. The grape was transplanted to Chile in the 19th century before it virtually disappeared from Bordeaux due to phylloxera.
Carmenère did well in Chile, but over time its identity got lost, and it was often confused with Merlot. The two grapes often grew side by side and were picked simultaneously, despite different ripening times. It wasn't until recent DNA profiling that its identity was separated from Merlot, and Chilean vintners began to bottle wines under the Carmenère name. Now that Carmenère is being planted separately and picked at the proper time, the wines have improved, and they are often plummy and fleshy, marked with tobacco flavors.
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