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Carménère has its day

A while back I spent a memorable evening in a wine garden with a friend. We started early and lingered late, enjoying the darkness and quiet of a closed winery over a bottle of carménère.

It was a summer night, tree branches stretched above us like fingers across the sky with stars twinkling through in demure peek-a-boo. When the last lights were turned off, we were immediately situated in the center of the universe, conversation, laughter and scintillating ideas streaming forth about creativity and the curing of all the world’s ills. Good carménère, a peppery and sanguine wine, does that to me, opens me up with its deep song of resilience and promise.

Carménère is an original Bordeaux grape but became a wise old varietal hiding out for 100-plus years. The varietal, earlier known as grand vidure, was often used in blends but lost its popularity. After the phylloxera infestation on European grapes in the mid to late 19th century, carménère was thought to have become extinct. Phylloxera, although it sounds like a disease, is a type of “vine louse” or tiny aphid that attacks and destroys grapevine roots. Its origins are in northeastern America and was transported to Europe via experimental vine cuttings probably in the 1850s.

Luckily, prior to phylloxera, cuttings of carménère were carried to Chile, but misidentified as merlot. Carménère, cabernet sauvignon and merlot come from the mother grape cabernet Franc, but each has their distinctiveness. In Chile, carménère was grown side by side with merlot, and even though it ripened later and showed additional differences, it was considered a local variation of merlot. Its true identity wasn’t discovered until 1994. DNA tests confirmed the Chilean grape was cultivated from cuttings of the Bordeaux grand vidure. Today, carménère is considered Chile’s signature grape and one of a handful of places globally where the varietal is grown.

A grape survivor, the medium-bodied carménère presents differently with Chilean terroir. Tastes that had in France been more subtle come forth in the well-drained soils and mountainous Andes region, which holds similarities to the lands of Southern Oregon. Spice, crunchy green pepper, and an elegance of fresh plum combine with earthy notes and softer velvety tannins than might be expected from the deep, reddish-purple color.

Southern Oregon carménère is available at three local wineries.

South Stage Cellars’ beautifully aged 2011 Alchemy is an exquisite blend of tempranillo, carménère and cabernet sauvignon. Opening from a bold expression of green pepper with notes of anise and deep, black fruit, this wine is smooth and mellow. The winemaker was Joe Dobbs. Its 2018 100% estate carménère is from vines planted 25 years ago, the first carménère vines planted in the Rogue Valley. Green pepper and black cherry fragrance guide into plum and continuing pepper with an earthy, mossy finish. Winemaker: Eric Weisinger.

Plaisance Ranch is offering a 2018 with an opening scent of roasting poblano peppers. Carménère holds surprises — there’s an elusiveness from the scent to palate. This one wafts from the pepper into a glissade of violet and red fruit with a long, dry coffee and cocoa finish.

Dana Campbell Vineyards’ 2016 and 2017 vintages of carménère are earthy and fruit-forward first, with a smooth and slightly smokey wood chip finish. They present the perfect opportunity for a vertical tasting.

It’s World Carménère Day. Have a glass or two. Be thankful for wine.

Reach Paula Bandy at pbthegrapevine@gmail.com and connect with her on Instagram at @pbthroughthegrapevine.