Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

Can Carmenere be for Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina — a game-changing wine that opens up new markets and upgrade perceptions in old ones? That’s the question I asked at the end of my last post.

An Unlikely Curse

Chile has earned a reputation for good value Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; this good reputation is ironically an anchor holding the industry back as it attempts to move upmarket. It will be quite a struggle to get consumers to pay more for established varieties of Chilean wines in the UK and US. New markets and new wine varieties may be the key to future success.

This is where Carmenere comes in. Carmenere is a variety that once produced famous wines in Bordeaux. But when vines were replanted after phylloxera, Carmenere was phased out because of its succeptability to a disease called coulure, which reduces yields. It thrived in phylloxera-free Chile, where it was mistaken for Merlot, an error only corrected in 1994. It is still unclear how many of Chile’s Merlot vines are really Carmenere.

Carmenere is a niche product here in the United States. If you take varietal Carmenere and blends together they account for about 0.2 percent of Nielsen- measured U.S. off-premises wine sales. Concha y Toro is the leading brand followed by Santa Rita and Root 1. By comparison, Chile has about a 2.7% overall share of the measured U.S. market by dollar value, so Carmenere is still quite small, but not insignificant. Total sales of all Chilean Carmenere and blends are less than the dollar value of revenues from Concha y Toro’s 1.5 liter Cabernet Sauvignon alone.

The first Chilean Carmenere that I remember seeing here in the U.S. was a line of wines called Oops, playing up the Merlot-Carmenere mix up. Here’s a nice Chilean Merlot … oops! It’s really something else! I remember trying a bottle and while the label was memorable it didn’t do much to establish Carmenere or Chile in my mind as a quality wine segment.

Carmenere Comes to Britain

Fast forward to 2010. Wines of Chile launched a big campaign in the key UK market called  Carmenere: made for Curry.  It was apparently quite successful, winning the prize for “generic promotion campaigns” at the International Wine Challenge Awards. The idea was to link Chilean Carmenere with Indian food (generically called “curry” in the UK), which is Britain’s most popular ethnic food category, and hope that Chicken Tikka Masala would do for Carmenere what Argentinean steak has done for Malbec.

But a big Carmenere tasting report in the July 2011 issue of Decanter raises some doubts about the quality of the wines, which is obviously a key factor in the strategy. Chilean Carmenere is a “work in progress” according to one of the panelists. Others suggested that Carmenere’s best bet is in blends (especially with Syrah), not as a varietal wine. None of the 132 wines tasted earned Decanter’s top 5-star rating and only 6 received 4 stars. Eight-six wines were “recommended” and 35 were named “good value” (Chilean good value — of course!).

[By comparison, a June 2010 Decanter tasting of 255 Argentinean Malbecs produced four 5-star, twenty-one 4-star and 131 three-star “recommended” ratings.]

Interestingly, the panel suggested that the “overt, oaky, alcoholic, heavy-bottle wines” were made to appeal to the U.S. and South American markets and lacked the balance they’d need to find favor in the U.K. The tone of the review was not as dark as I am probably painting it here, but the conclusion was clear: there was nothing revealed in those 132 bottles that would fundamentally alter Chile’s reputation.

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

The Curry and Carmenere campaign was so successful in the UK that Wines of Chile brought it to the U.S. earlier this fall and we were invited to participate in a blogger tasting. Sue and I asked two of my “Idea of Wine” students, Marina Balleria and Mike Knape, to join us.  Marina and Mike both studied abroad in Chile and brought local wine knowledge to the table as well as excellent critical thinking (and tasting) skills.

 We concluded that Curry and Carmenere is not a ridiculous idea (Mike reported a “perfect” bite with one of the wines and an onion empanada with a curry sauce), but not all the matches were equally successful. In any case, curry doesn’t have the same significance here in the U.S. that is does in the U.K. Even if Carmenere hit a home run with curry that wouldn’t automatically open up a very large U.S. wine market segment.

We found the alcohol and oak that the Decanter tasters noted, but Marina suggested that oak is part of what she expects from Chilean red wine, so this was a positive feature for her — a defining style. One of the bottles was heavy indeed — 1084 grams according to our scale, the heaviest bottle I’ve encountered since I started keeping track.  Not exactly in keeping with the “Chile is good for you” environmental theme. Most of the wines were more interesting when re-tasted the next day.
 So what did we decide about the critical question — is Carmenere the special one that will lead Chile into the next phase of its wine market evolution? Not yet — I think that’s the answer. We didn’t find the distinctive style and consistent quality that we were looking for although there were some we really liked (and — sorry! — thought were good values).
Project Carmenere is still under construction. When will it be finished? This is hard to say. Malbec wasn’t built in a day, although the Malbec boom, when it came, developed very quickly. Carmenere’s story may be the same — or maybe the time has passed when hot new red varieties can make wine drinkers swoon.
Either way I think it will be tough for Chile to achieve its 2020 goals but I think they need to try. Carmenere may be Chile’s best bet and I look forward to tracking its progress.


Here are the wines we tasted for the Curry and Carmenere event. Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate and thanks to Mike and Marina (see photos above) for their insights.

Blogger Tasting Wine List

1- Emiliana Natura Carmenere 2010 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

2- Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $22

3- Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

4- Montes Alpha Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 90% Carmenere, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon SRP: $24.00

5- Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 / Apalta Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

6- Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 / Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

7- Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2009 / Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $20.00

8- Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon / Carmenere 2007 / Maipo Valley 40% Cab. Sauv., 37% Carmenere, 13% Cab. Franc, 10% Syrah SRP: $13.00

8 responses

  1. I would suggest that to jailbreak Carmenere into the US market, curry is definitely not the way to do it. We don’t know from Indian curry. We do eat SE Asian curry, Thai and so on. But mostly in the big cities.
    I would suggest that the Chilean people think about promoting the foods of Latin America for their specialty grape. We do eat tons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, TexMex, Argentine, Ecuadoran, Peruvian foods every day and Cabernet just doesn’t make it seem regional with most of those foods.
    The wineries that have an interest in promoting their wines with foods will have their family backgrounds to look at and find foods that they like to eat with their wines. A big plus for today’s wine cognoscenti. And, unlike the French, the US middle class wine drinkers don’t have to be chefs to enjoy the wines with food.
    There are a good number of taco joints, including TacoBell, around outside the big cities in the US. A surprising number of Midwest states have quite sizable Latino populations these days. Thirteen of the 50 wards in Chicago have a majority of Latino residents now. Chile can play to that diversity easily, as they already speak the language.
    The whole rank of southern states are a taco paradise. Granted it is also the stomping grounds of Budweiser and Coors, but this is a cuisine that Carmenere can relate to in more ways than it can with curry.

  2. Another interesting post; just a couple of personal points to add, Firstly, few of us in the U/K have much idea about Carmenère. There’s very little of it in Europe and Chile only began exporting it as a varietal in 2007. Malbec wines on the other hand have long been available from Cahors, so the name and profile were not entirely unfamiliar once Argentina began its Malbec export drive. Secondly, notwithstanding any success that the “Carmenère: Made for Curry” campaign may have had, it strikes me as bizarre given that the term “curry” covers such a wide range of cooking styles and ingredients. You might just as well have “Roast beef: Made for Wine”.

  3. Mike,
    Carmenere for Curry will never work here, as so many Americans don’t eat Indian food. (And what about South East Asian curries?).
    But, what Carmenere is really great with is Mexican food. There is a dried chile quality to Carmenere that really goes well with the tomato and spices that make up the salsas, mole and sauces like enchilada (made from dried chilis and tomatoes…).
    It was a joke of a former boss of mine that any wine that was new that we tasted was “great with tacos.”

    I think that since Mexican food is so ubiquitous in this country, especially in the west, that it’s a natural tie in.

  4. I have been suggesting and selling Carmenere as going great with Enchiladas, Mole, Tacos, etc. for years. It works well with lots of Chinese foods too (especially dishes that have chile in them.) Carmenere has the highest level of pyrazine of any variety…that is the compound that gives the “bell pepper” quality. (This can be minimized by making sure Carmenere is harvested when fully ripe. But it is never going to go away.) All of these foods with chiles in them work well as they match up to that roasted pepper quality you find in a good Carmenere.

    I agree with the original post that Carmenere is still a work in progress. There are some truly great examples but there are too many wineries putting out mediocre Carmenere. One thing to keep in mind is that, although it is a rediscovered variety that has been around for a long time, winemakers and viticulturists have only been working with the grape for 10-15 years. They are still learning a lot about how to get the best results and stay true to the essence of the variety. Believe it or not, the variety has come A LONG way in the last 6-8 years.

  5. As an importer and true believer of Chilean carmenere, I think that the varietal will need to find a much more ubiquitous connection to the American consumer than just by being recommended as matching well with a particular food item, or even a larger ethnic category. The malbec explosion did not come because of a high brow food pairing (perhaps some loose link to grilled beef, which is easy enough for any bold-ish red to claim); nor the CA pinot noir boom after “Sideways”, or what is now the snowballing domestic red blend trend in all suburban grocery stores.

    If what we are talking about here is a new red game-changing trend-setter (translation: high volume), then carmenere needs to be accepted with all foods, and as a cocktail wine. I would guess that 98% of Malbec buyers, at the supermarket or World Market or local bistro, are in no way concerned with food match; they want what is safe enough to now call personally familiar, acceptable if shared with neighbors or ordered in front of coworkers, and although in many cases not even close to gastronomically correct, solid and memorable on the palate. Price it right, make the pronunciation simple enough (distributors and merchants, PLEASE stop using the French “nee-yair” for the Chilean versions, it adds an unnecessary and actually incorrect layer of language fear for consumers), and do tastings, tastings, and more tastings everywhere possible – and maybe we can get it to grab hold the ay that it deserves. Then we can start talking fun varietal history and curry vs. chile verde.

    My most successful accounts are upscale neighborhood pizza restaurants, where the atmosphere is relaxed, the garlic and cured meat is copious, the prices are right, and a second or third glass ordered is an easy decision. Viva carmenere, salud.

  6. I just found this article after having tried a wonderful Carmenere from Chile’s Root 1 winery.
    I must say that my first taste of Chilean red wines was that of Santa Emma’s Private Reserve Merlot in 2001. I was hooked! This wine had a perfect nose and lingering of the chocolate tones. I then explored other Merlot and cabs from this country and was not as impressed as I was with Santa Emma.
    Now 14 years later, I have found that I have fallen head over hills for a wine that was a Christmas gift. Root 1 Carmenere did not make your list of wines in this article and I must say this is the first of this winery that I have tasted but it has letc such an impression on my taste buds that I am searching to purchase it by the case.
    I found that Santa Emma’s quality and taste changed throughout the years and some crops did not impress me in the same way that the early 2000’s did but in comparison to other Chilean Merlot’s, Santa Emma was still my top choice.
    That has now changed as Root 1 yr 2011 Carmenere is now my new love! I challenge all wine enthusiasts to give this one a try.

    Sunshine S

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