Historically, Carmenère has been difficult to grow in cold, humid climates, and, although this is one of the most ancient varieties in Bordeaux, plantings have not been maintained even in this region, let alone any other in France, or for that matter, anywhere in Europe!
Carmenère requires more heat to ripen than the other varietals planted in Bordeaux. This and its erratic tendency to develop a condition called coulure, poor fruit set after flowering, may have caused Carmenère to fall out of favor there.
At one time, Carmenère was prized in the Medoc for both its depth of color and, in ripe years, flavor that can range from herbal to gamy and add complexity and interest to blends. Carmenère berries have a fairly high juice-to-skin ratio and tend to produce wines that are not as astringent as Cabernet Sauvignon. An inclination to have high content of methoxypyrazine can make some Carmenère wines overly vegetative.
Thought to be the antecedent of other better-known varietals, some think Carmenère is possibly a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Bordeaux synonym for Carmenère is Grand Vidure and Cabernet Sauvignon is also known there simply as Vidure. Some suggest that Carmenère may be Biturica, the vine of not only ancient Roman praise, but also the word then used to call the city that became Bordeaux.
Carmenère was imported to South America in the 1850s, along with other Bordeaux varieties, prior to the European outbreak of Phylloxera. The largest established vineyards of this variety are in Chile, although many of these were misidentified as Merlot (the two vines share many similarities) for more than a century. French ampelographer Jean Michel Bourisiquot discovered the truth in 1994.
In 2009, two of Chile’s leading universities, with funding from Viña Casa Silva (a major producer), began a two-year study of Carmenère. The research seeks causes and cures for the grape’s undesirable tendencies of poor fruit set, late ripening, and high pyrazine content. The project has identified more than 60 clones, with wide variations of these characteristics.
There may soon be something of a resurgence in plantings of Carmenère. In California, the virtual rescue and revival of this cultivar was the result of a twelve-year quest by Karen Mulander-Magoon, co-proprietor of the Guenoc and Langtry Estates in Lake County. Cuttings of the cultivar had to survive three years of quarantine and testing in Canada and New York, prior to admission and planting in California in the late 1990s.