Guns N’ Roses was the biggest draw in rock music in the 80’s and early 90’s, owing largely to the talent of the individual members of the band. After their last concert, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 17, 1993, Axl Rose continued to tour with new band members as Guns N’ Roses, but Slash has not performed with Axl since then. Slash, of course, has continued to play guitar, notably with Slash’s Snakepit and Velvet Revolver.
In Bordeaux, France, red wines are made from a handful of grape varieties, which historically included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Pinot Verdot, and Carmenère. Like Slash, leaving Guns N’ Roses, Carmenère has largely left France, but has gone on to great things in South America, growing widely in Chile’s Central Valley.
Recently I was sent a review sample of the 2011 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenère, to mark the 20th anniversary of the rediscovery of Carmenère in Carmen’s estate Vineyards in Chile. Thought to be extinct, the treasured grape was rediscovered on Nov. 24, 1994, and has helped to define Chile’s reputation around the world for distinctive wines.
While Carmenère is wildly popular in Chile, it is still relatively undiscovered in the United States. Similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in structure, but with the soft roundness of a Merlot, Carmenère is often enjoyed at festive Chilean dinners with steak and other grilled meats.
As Chile’s oldest winery and the place of Carmenère’s rediscovery, Carmen has taken a leadership role within the Chilean wine industry in maximizing the varietal’s nuanced qualities through innovative winemaking techniques. Carmen winemaker Sebastián Labbé notes, “The structure and acidity of our Carmenère stands up to traditionally rich dishes and bold flavors.”
In the U.S., Carmen wines are part of the Trinchero Family Estates portfolio. 2011 Gran Reserva Carmenère is readily available at most shops across the country and retails for less than $20.
Closer to home, Mendocino County’s Yorkville Cellars in the Yorkville Highlands on Highway 128, grows Carmenère grapes and bottles it, as one of their complete line up of Bordeaux variety wines. The good folks at Yorkville Cellars, Deborah and Edward Wallo, and tasting room host extraordinaire Gary Krimont, delivered a bottle of their 2012 Yorkville Cellars Carmenère, Rennie Vineyard, made with organic grapes to me for this piece as well.
From Yorkville Cellars, a primer on Carmenère:
“Before the 19th century’s ravages of phylloxera, Carmenère was a very important grape in the Bordeaux region, especially in the Médoc. During the era of replanting, it was the odd grape out, as it did not take well to being grafted, so much of its former territory was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Before that happened, vine cuttings had traveled across the ocean, as the South American vineyards were rapidly expanding in the 1850s.
Fast-forward to 1994 in Chile, where ampelographer Jean Michel Bourisiquot discovered the truth: Most of Chile’s Merlot vineyards were a mix of Merlot and Carmenère, and usually 60- to 90 percent Carmenère! For nearly 150 years Chilean viticulturists struggled with vineyards that had two distinct grapes interplanted, ones that often ripened three weeks apart! They had assumed that their clone, nicknamed ‘Chilean Merlot,’ was just a difficult grape to work with. Outside of Chile, Carmenère is nearly extinct, with a mere 59 bearing acres (out of nearly 500,000 acres) in California, for example.
Carmenère requires more heat to ripen than the other varietals planted in Bordeaux. It is still in the process of being examined using the tools of modern viticulture, but this much seems clear: It can produce outstanding grapes given eight to nine months of sun, but not too much daily heat, if it gets some rain, but not during ripening, and if the vines are well established in soils that have an even balance of clay, loam and sand. Whew! Oh, and it is particular about what rootstock it’s grafted to. Other than that, no problem!
Wines made from Carmenère show a depth of color, and complexity of flavor that can range from herbal to gamey and show elegance and balance. In the best conditions it is said to produce wines that resemble the blends of Bordeaux, all from a single grape. Lower acid and rounder fruit than Cabernet, more structured and exotic than Merlot, often showing hints of roses and smoky, even tarry notes.”
2011 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenère, Apalta Vineyard — 94% Carmenere, 4% Carignane, 2 % Temranillo. Inky purple color. Berry, spice, earth, cherry, toast oak. Roand and drinkable. Nice acid.
2012 Yorkville Cellars Carmenère, Rennie Vineyard, $36 — 75% Carmenère, 25% Malbec. Inky dark purple black in the glass. Woody berry, floral, spice, earth, cranberry, vanilla cream. Lush and delicious, great finish.
Different wines to be sure, but both were marked by earthy spicy oaky berry fruit, and both cried for a flavorful zesty herbed meat dish.
Rumor is that Slash may rejoin Axl for a Guns N’ Roses reunion tour. Fact is that Carmenère has found two wonderful homes, in Chile and California, and is doing great away from Bordeaux.