A carmenere that’s complex without the cost

Some grapes are unique to a locale. Carmenere is one that used to be. Along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot, it was used in 19th-century France to make red Bordeaux. But it was exported to Chile at that time, when the modern Chilean wine industry was getting started, and now it is found throughout that nation and rarely elsewhere.

After French vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera, the vine-eating disease, in the late-19th century, carmenere was not replanted in Bordeaux because it needs a warm autumn to ripen, something that Bordeaux’s climate can not provide consistently.

Until 1994, carmenere was confused with merlot in Chile, since the vines look similar, so it was harvested at the same time as merlot, even though it takes longer to ripen. As a result, many Chilean wines labeled Merlot were actually a blend of merlot, harvested at the appropriate time, and carmenere, harvested while the fruit was unripe. The unripe carmenere imparted a vegetal taste to the wine. But now, Chilean winemakers recognize the difference between these varieties and plant carmenere in warmer spots and wait until the grapes are ripe before harvesting.

Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s best wineries, produces two lovely carmenere. The one under its Terrunyo label (about $30) comes from grapes grown in a single vineyard in the Peumo Valley, a small area within the warm Rapel Valley where that grape thrives. The carmenere sold under its Casillero del Diablo label (about $10) is made from grapes grown in vineyards scattered throughout the Rapel Valley. (Typically, the smaller the area from which the grapes come, the more distinctive the wine).

While the Terrunyo Carmenere consistently delivers more layers of flavors, the 2004 Casillero del Diablo Carmenere is remarkably complex and a fantastic buy. It has the hallmark smoky and meaty character of carmenere without a trace of under-ripe fruit. The wine holds up well after you open the bottle, so you can have a glass or two, recork it, and enjoy it the following night.

Concha y Toro, Castillero del Diablo, Carmenere, 2004. (About $10). Distributed by Horizon Beverage Co., 800-696-2337.

April 28, 2005.