Carmenere


The point of making wines from a single vineyard or even more precisely from selected blocks within a vineyard is to highlight particular qualities of character and excellence that those locations or rows of vines theoretically embody. Such a principle is the philosophical and esthetic guiding light, for example, of Burgundy, where legendary vineyards separated by no more than a low stone wall or narrow country lane serve as testimony to the nuances imposed upon a wine by the minute shifts in exposure, drainage, soil composition and wind direction that we call terroir. It takes a taster possessing years of experience with Burgundy — a Clive Coates or Allen Meadows — to be able to detect the differences between an estate’s bottling of the adjacent vineyards of Chambolle-Musigny Les Chabiots and Chambolle-Musigny Les Borniques (seen in the accompanying map, left of center) or Montrachet Les Pucelles and Montrachet Le Cailleret. Most of us, even in the wine-writing business, are not called upon to render such rarefied distinctions, though we are, of course, grievously envious of those who have the opportunity.

Still, the thinking in the wine industry is that while a wine, let’s say chardonnay, that carries a Napa Valley designation may be good, a chardonnay from Carneros will, hypothetically, be better because it derives from a smaller, more specialized area, while a chardonnay from a particular vineyard in Carneros, say Truchard or Sangiacomo, will be the best because it originated from a designated and well-known patch of land. And occasionally this scheme works. Certainly wineries and their marketing teams would like to persuade us that this is the case because single-vineyard products generally command higher prices than wines from a more general appellation. The problem is that even some of the most famous vineyards in California aren’t more than 40 or 50 years old; people have cultivated those fragmented vineyards in Burgundy for a thousand years. The track-record for many vineyards in California, Oregon and Washington is far from complete or even necessarily convincing.

Oh, yes, a winery like Diamond Creek made its indisputable reputation on cabernet sauvignon wines produced from three teeny-weeny and very different vineyards, bottled separately, nestled around a little pond high on Diamond Mountain west of Calistoga; those cushioned by trust funds can savor and debate the subtleties of those expensive wines. For every successful producer of single-vineyard wines like Diamond Creek, however, there are dozens that trade on the supposed superiority of vineyard-designated wines for which the public will pay.

All of which leads me to the trio of wines being considered in this post today: the Terrunyo wines produced by Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s most historic producers and the source, under its roster of labels, of almost 25 percent of the country’s wine production. The Terrunyo wines are not simply single-vineyard wines; the grapes come from specific blocks of vines within these vineyards. They are, according to the press release lying here on my desk, “The Ultimate Definition of Chilean Terroir.” Let’s look at each individually. Winemaker was Ignacio Recabarren. These were samples for review.

Map of the commune of Chambolle-Musigny from Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne (Le Grand Bernard des Vins de France, 1985), by Sylvain Pitiot and Pierre Poupon. Notice, if you can see it, that the Premier Cru Les Bornique directly abuts the Grand Cru Les Musigny. How much difference does a few feet make; in Burgundy, a lot.
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The Terrunyo Carmenere 2007 originates from Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley of the Rapel region. This information isn’t very enlightening if one doesn’t know much about the geography of Chile’s wine regions; suffice to say that Rapel is part of Chile’s vast Central Valley that starts immediately south and southwest of the city of Santiago with Maipo and continues south with Rapel, Curico and Maule, each of which is divided into sub-regions and zones. Cachapoal lies along the river of that name, so not surprisingly the soil is alluvial in nature, deep and loamy. Carmenère is a grape grown almost exclusively in Chile. In the 19th Century, it was considered as important as cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux but fell from favor because of its irregular ripening pattern; by the early 20th Century, carmenère had basically been eliminated from Bordeaux, but cuttings had been imported to Chile along with merlot. This field blend planting became so dominant that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that DNA testing revealed that something like 80 percent of what was thought of as merlot in Chile was actually carmenère; now, on its own or blended with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it has become the country’s signature red grape. I’ve noticed, by the way, that many wineries in Chile have dropped the accent that should properly be part of carmenère; is this supposed to make matters somehow easier for Americans? Fie, leave the accent alone!

So, Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard — the vineyard was planted in 1990 — is a dark ruby-purple color; aromas of cedar and tobacco, mint and graphite are woven with spiced and macerated blueberries, black currants and plums. This is a dusty, earthy, minerally, leathery wine, steeply endowed with oak and tannin and all their austere attributes of underbrush, forest floor and dried porcini mushrooms; it aged 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and you really feel the dry, mouth-coating mocha-bitter chocolate/briery-brambly influence of that process. Where’s the fruit? I mean, wine is made from grapes, remember? One has to wonder what aspect of Block 27 of the Peumo Vineyard is left in this wine after it was been fashioned with so much oak and tannin. The motivation of such a wine is to be a distinctive reflection of a specific site within a specific vineyard, while what emerges in this case is a carmenère made like many others in Chile, with a high level of aspiration that’s choked by technique. I’m not saying that Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, Block 27, Peumo Vineyard, couldn’t be enjoyed with a steak, just that it doesn’t do what it claims to do. 14 percent alcohol. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2017 to ’18. Very Good+. About $38.

Map from chilediscover.com.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ All right, let’s turn to the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Las Terrazas Block, Old Pirque Vineyard, Maipo region, Maipo being the area of the Central Valley closest to Santiago. This vineyard was planted in 1978. The oak regimen is the same as for the Terrunyo Carmenere 2007, that is, 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. And as with its carmenère cousin, the Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is made from grapes influenced by a nearby river, the Maipo, and its alluvial, deep gravelly soil. For whatever reason, despite its quite evident earthiness, leather and granite/graphite-like minerality, this wine is a little brighter, its black currant, black cherry and plum aromas given a lift of ripeness and freshness. A few minutes in the glass bring out classic cabernet touches of cedar and black olives, dried thyme and rosemary, with the latter herb’s slightly resinous quality. Still, tannins are stalwart, a shaggy, dusty bastion bolstered by sleek polished oak that sends a line of austerity directly through the mouth and into the wine’s dry, woody/spicy finish. Well, so, here’s a cabernet that’s fine up to a point but doesn’t deliver on its promise of reflecting the virtues of a particular, limited set of vines within a significant vineyard; whatever details of cabernet-like nuance Las Terrazas Block night have imparted seem subsumed to a general idea of international cabernetness such as could be found in many other examples of cabernet sauvignon from Chile or California, Italy or Australia. Good to drink with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill? Sure. A unique terroiristique expression of the cabernet sauvignon grape? Sorry, no way. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $38.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Hailing from Block 34 of the Rucahue Vineyard in the Rapel Valley, the Terrunyo Syrah 2007 is a wine that simply does not assert anything of the character of the grape. Grape varieties do, of course, have individual character, which is why we make wine from cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, from chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, so we can savor the differences between them. Everything you love about the syrah grape — the meaty, fleshy, slightly stewed black and blue fruit scents and flavors; the touches of bacon fat, wet dog and fruitcake; the spicy, peppery qualities; the bit of funkiness balanced by piercing minerality and scintillating acidity — don’t look for any of that here, because this is a syrah wine that so closely resembles a cabernet sauvignon that it’s almost indistinguishable from the wine reviewed just above. Indeed, this wine’s panoply of dry, leathery, earthy, austere tannins, with their notes of walnut shell, wheatmeal and bitter chocolate pretty much out-cabernets most cabernets: mark, and I pray you, avoid it! 14 percent alcohol. Good+. About $38.

Yes, he’s on his high-horse again. Or flogging a dead horse. It must be done, so I’ll ask a question I have asked before: why go to the effort, the time and the expense to produce a vineyard-designated wine or even more narrowly, as in the case of these Terrunya examples, ones from specific blocks within vineyards, if you’re not going to allow the grapes to express what’s unique about the site? Without using those wines to define what’s unique about the site and make a case for their legitimacy? Unfortunately, the world of wine is filled with such wasted opportunities.
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Here’s an inexpensive — actually cheap — 100 percent carmenère wine that pulls rank and expresses the character of the grape without echos or sneaky infiltrations of merlot or cabernet sauvignon. The Santa Digna Carmenère Reserva 2009, from Chile’s vast Central Valley, is made by Miguel Torres, of the well-known Torres wine family of Spain. The color pulses with deep purple, and aromas of black olive, bell pepper, tomato skin, black currants, blueberries and plums convince your nose that this is the real deal. A few moments in the glass bring up notes of cedar and tobacco and dusty graphite. The wine is dense and chewy, but still a light-hearted charmer that invests its spicy black and blue fruit flavors — looks for touches of dried orange rind and fig — with vibrant acidity, moderately firm tannins and a long, mineral-laced finish. It’s a bit rustic, as befits a tasty, uncomplicated wine that you might quaff while lying back in a hay-rick gnawing on a piece of cold fried chicken, yet smooth and palatable. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $10, a Great Bargain.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co, New York. A sample for review.

Yes, Oveja Negra means “black sheep” — the outcast, the shunned — but this quartet of blended wines from Chile should be insiders on your table this summer. The wines are thoughtfully made from sustainable vineyards by Rafael Tirado, they’re primarily tasty and approachable, and the price, as you’ll see, can’t be beat. They’re from Chile’s Maule Valley, which lies within the country’s vast and productive Central Valley, which also include the vineyard regions of Maipo, Rapel and Curicó. No new oak is used with these Reserva wines. The bottles are topped with screw-caps for easy opening.

The Oveja Negra Reserva Sauvignon Blanc Carmenère 2009 is absolutely delightful. The blend is 85 percent sauvignon blanc and 15 percent carmenère, which, the sharp-eyed among you will assert, is a red grape, so it’s picked early, slightly under-ripe for the acidity, treated as if it were being made into a rosé wine, with no skin contact, and then blended back. The wine is made completely in stainless steel. This is clean, fresh and delicate, with penetrating scents of grapefruit, crushed jasmine, talc, lime peel and lemon balm; that’s right, you could dab it behind your ears on a soft summer night. Vivid acidity keeps the wine crisp and lively, buoying light flavors of slightly leafy lemon with hints of cloves and new-mown grass. The wine is quite dry and a little chalky, and the finish brings in a note of damp limestone. One of the prettiest wines around. Alcohol content is 13.2 percent. Very Good+. About $12 and a Great Bargain.

I was not quite as enamored of the Oveja Negra Reserva Chardonnay Viognier 2008, a blend of 82 percent chardonnay and 18 percent viognier. It’s simply a stylistic matter; this is rather too boldly and brightly spicy and tropical for my taste, but it’s certainly well-made. Ten percent of the wine is aged eight months in used French oak; in fact, these Oveja Negra Reserva wines see no new oak at all. Roasted grapefruit, baked pineapple, lemon-lime and lemon balm, a hint of spiced mango (and in the bouquet a beguiling touch of honeysuckle from the viognier): juicy but very dry, quite drinkable but more florid than I like, even in an inexpensive white wine. If it’s to your taste, go for it. Alcohol is 13.7 percent. Very Good. About $12.

The aromas of black and red currants that waft from a glass of the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Franc Carmenère 2008 — the blend is 70/30 — are not only ripe and seductive but intense and concentrated and permeated by elements of cocoa powder and cloves, briers and brambles; the wine is deeply spicy and peppery, earthy and minerally in a crushed gravel sort of way, and its luscious, almost velvety black and red fruit flavors (with a whisk of cedary blueberry) lead to a finish with a touch of leathery austerity. The oak regimen is this: 40 percent of the wine aged eight to 10 months in a combination of 60 percent French and 40 percent American used oak barrels; the majority of the wine remained in stainless steel. A lot of personality for the price here, and a natural mate with grilled steaks and hamburgers or hearty pizzas and pasta dishes. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at about $12.

Fourth in this roster is the Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2008, a 68/32 percent blend with the same oak treatment as the Cabernet Franc Carmenère 08 mentioned above. This is a sizable wine, dense, concentrated, chewy, smoky and very spicy; it’s packed with earth- and mineral-infused black currant, blackberry and plum flavors, and the finish is stalwart with grainy tannins and polished oak. A little closed-in now and showing not quite the immediate pleasure of the previous wine. Perhaps a year in the bottle will soften it. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $12.

Imported by Vici Wine & Spirits, Coral Springs, Fla. Tasted at a trade luncheon.

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