Have you ever heard of the Great French Wine Blight? It was caused by an aphid, a bug that sucks the sap from plants. It destroyed countless wine grapes in France in the late 1800s. The bugs found their way throughout Europe and even to Australia. Carménère vines were considered destroyed and lost. Yet Chilean merlot brands never had to fight the bug. Since carménère was considered lost, similar-looking carménère grapes were simply considered merlot grapes.
A Merlot Mystery
Until the early 1990s, a lot of the red wine that came from Chile featured “merlot” on the label. However, since 1994 much of Chilean merlot has been reclassified as carménère. As wine became global in the 1990s and tasting varietals from around the world became much more popular, wine experts started noticing that Chilean merlot brands had greater strength and more pronounced spice than most merlot.
DNA mapping was done at Montpellier’s School of Oenology (oenologists are specialists in wine production). Lo and behold, they found that many merlot grapes were in fact carménère!
How Are They Different?
It’s lovely to have both Chilean carménère and merlot in the house. You can taste how they share similarities, but they pronounce them in such unique and intriguing ways that you have to wonder how carménère remained hidden for so long. Carménère sometimes has green tastes, such as bell pepper and herbs, that enhance its more robust fruit flavors. This is balanced with a velvety delivery of spice.
Merlot features red fruit aromas, elegant delivery, soft texture, and sumptuous notes of black pepper. Its notes are more delicate and less bold, focused on structure and fruit finish.
They feature many similarities, but carménère is more aggressive, has a stronger spice note, and has greener taste elements. Merlot is smoother, more delicate, focuses more on fruit than spice, and foregoes carménère’s green tastes. Each has very different strengths that are delicious.
Chile Is the Perfect Wine Region
Chile’s geographic isolation is what saved carménère from extinction. Essentially caught between the Andes mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s unique topography and climate kept carménère grapes hidden safely as merlot grapes for generations. Luckily, Chile is quite possibly the best region in the world for red wines, and this kept a diverse range of varietals flourishing until they could be rediscovered.