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Craving Carménère December 27, 2009

Posted by Alex Sawit in About Wine.

By Alex Sawit

27 December 2009


La raison et l’amour sont ennemis jurés.

That’s what I said not too many nights ago to some friends as they discussed matters of the heart over a bottle of Macallan (forgive me but I actually don’t speak French, though I’ve been told my pronunciation is quite good). “The French have a saying,” I answered them, quoting the phrase followed by the translation. “Reason and love are sworn enemies.”

The mind imposes and the heart fights back. It’s the eternal struggle.

I mention this because I’m suddenly reminded that wine lovers are just as susceptible to such conflict. Take me. I’m mad about Carménère. And right now it’s a frustrating passion to have to think through.

In a global market where the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate consumer preference when it comes to red varietals, Carménère is still largely unheard of. Yet no other grape variety in recent years has generated as much anticipation among industry experts cheering its return to prominence. Native to France, Carménère was once the darling of Bordeaux’s vintners, who used it to bring vivid color and splendid flavor to their greatest blends. Tragically, Carménère was wiped out by an infestation in the 19th century and is virtually extinct in its home country. Today, Chile is the adopted homeland of this grape variety, placing the Chileans at the forefront of developing the best Carménère wines in the world (the most acclaimed label to date is the luxurious Carmín de Peumo, currently the highest scoring Carménère ever rated by Robert Parker’s all-influential publication, The Wine Advocate).


“A Candidate for Chile’s finest wine,” declared Robert Parker’s
The Wine Advocate about Carmín de Peumo. It received
a score of 97 points from the influential publication
(awarded to vintage 2003 and again to vintage 2005),
the highest it has ever awarded a Chilean wine.


If you’ve never tried Carménère, I’d very loosely describe it to you as a red that combines the suaveness of Merlot with a depth of character akin to that of a Cab. It’s not an easy grape to coax, though. Vintners who lack the discipline to cultivate it are punished with an incoherent cocktail of vegetal flavors. But made properly, it is for me the yummiest red varietal of them all.

This brings me to my present dilemma. For more than a year, our wine shop’s best-selling Chilean Carménère brand was absent from our shelves due to the current distributor’s long running refusal to import it. During the time of the old distributor, Casillero del Diablo Carménère had been my popular recommendation to customers who had never tried Carménère before (the 2004 Casillero vintage was by my reckoning one of the best-value Carménère wines of the decade, a velvety smooth red with raspberry chocolate fatness whose outstanding quality belied how affordable it was). So imagine my relief when the current distributor finally imported a shipment and delivered my order. Then imagine my sinking feeling when every bottle I opened showed red stains seeping up the corks. It was heat damage. I deduced (and later confirmed) that they had left the shipment container at the port baking under the sun for weeks before transferring the wine to the warehouse. To be fair, the deterioration was minimal. But that’s no excuse. I had a right to expect it to taste a lot better than this.

It was the second time in a month that the distributor had disappointed me with my favorite varietal. A few weeks earlier, they supplied a low-cost Chilean red to an all-Carménère blind tasting at Gene Gonzales’s Café Ysabel (Chef Gene is a big Carménère fan, you see). Despite its low-end status, the surprised judges found the samples impressive. I, too, was impressed after I received and tasted my own sample. So I ordered it. To my shock, the wines delivered to me were painfully inferior. It was the exact same brand but the vintage was completely different. What happened to the vintage that had delighted both me and the Café Ysabel judges? Not a single bottle was to be found at the distributor’s warehouse. Had stocks of the correct vintage run out that fast? Had they bothered to import it at all? It turned out that the samples of the distinctive vintage that the judges and I had tasted were part of a limited package sent by the Chilean winery strictly for promotional use. Frustrated, I simply returned the delivery.

I miss my old distributor, who had represented the Chilean winery for many years prior to all its brands being awarded to the current group. For all their limitations, my old distributor understands the passion that wine lovers have. They understand that wine is passion (thank you, Robert Mondavi, for famously saying that). Sadly, the current distributor has only minimal experience in the wine trade. It’s even been confirmed that the owners who run the company don’t drink wine.

I love the brands of this renowned Chilean winery, their glorious Carménère above all, but their current distributor hasn’t gotten its act together as a wine merchant. So what shall I do with my Carménère cravings? What say you, my mind and my heart?

Decisions, decisions….





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