The Calcu Carmenère from Chile is no bull

By Celia Strong

There seems to be a trend of wines with a bull on the label. One day we are going to have to look into what the connection is between bulls and wines, especially wines from Spanish speaking countries. Obviously, Spain is the home of bull fighting. But what connects wine into that? It’s gotten to the point where if we’ve had a wine we like and we want to find it and it had a bull on the bottle, we can’t just go looking for any bottle with a bull on it. There are too many and we could end up with a different wine. But our wine this week is a new bull bottle that stands out and is worth learning more about in order to give it a try.

Our bull ride takes us to Chile this week. Winemaking in Chile dates back to the 16th century. Spanish conquistadors brought “vitis vinifera” vines when they colonized the country.  There are local legends that conquistador Francisco de Aguirre himself planted the very first vine. Most of these vines were probably from Peru, not Europe, and were most likely related to the País variety. Until the 21st century, País was the most widely planted grape in Chile. (French grape varieties like Cabernet, Merlot, Carmenère and Cabernet Franc all came in the mid-19th century.)  While the Spanish ruled Chile, local vineyard production was limited and taken care of by missionaries. Most of the wine, then, that was drunk in Chile had to come from Spain — one way to make sure Spain had markets. And, consequently, Chilean wines became mostly sweeter style.

Despite its strong connection with Spain, Chilean wine was more influenced by France. Don Silvestre Errázuruz brought vines from France, hired a French winemaker and started to produce wines in the Bordeaux style. Lack of transportation, to get the wines from the vineyards to consumers, and a series of war scares made the beginning very difficult for these wines. The building of the national railroad in 1902 fixed that, though. Twentieth century instability in Chilean politics as well as high taxes hampered the industry’s growth some more. But, finally, the excellent growing conditions in Chile became known in other wine producing countries and foreign investors showed up. Chile became the third largest wine exporter in the world.

One of the best known Chilean wine regions is the Colchagua Valley. It is roughly 2,200 square acres, located in the southern part of the Rapel Valley, running from the Andes Mountains in the east to the Coastal Range in the west. The vineyards lie in the foothills.

Colchagua is best known for its full-bodied Malbecs, Cabernets, Carmenères and Syrahs. These red varieties tend to be planted in the warmer eastern part of the valley. White grapes grow better in the cooler western side. The region has a cool Mediterranean climate, about 23 inches of rain each year, and clay, sand and decomposed granite soils. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named the Colchagua Valley as the wine region if the year in 2005.

Our wine this week is a Carmenère — a variety that came from Bordeaux, known for its deep colored wines and most often used for blending. It is believed Carmenère is a clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. Its tannins are softer than Cabernet’s, its wines are medium bodied, its aromas are cherry-like with other red fruits, smokiness, spiciness and earth notes. Dark chocolate, tobacco and leather also show in its flavors with a crimson color in your glass. This grape’s name comes from the French word for “crimson,” “carmin.” Although, Carmenère was one of the six grapes originally allowed in Bordeaux red wines, it is no longer grown there. (So, yes, Bordeaux now has just five legally accepted varieties.) Chile is the world’s largest grower of Carmenère, pronounced “car-men-yaihr,” like “fair.”

Cuttings of Carmenère were taken to Chile, from Bordeaux, during the 19th century. It was common for them to be mistaken for Merlot vines. The cuttings of Carmenère that were planted in Chile thrived in the drier vineyards there. And, they were never exposed to the phylloxera infestation that occurred in Bordeaux just after they were transplanted. The Chilean vineyards, surrounded completely by mountains, were safe. As Chile produced larger quantities of wines, and they were exported to other countries, their Merlot wines were described as different. As well they should be: Research at Montpellier’s School of Oenology showed their “Merlot” was really Carmenère. And, in 1998, the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized Carmenère. (For some of us, already studying wines back then, it was like a new grape had been discovered.)

For food, Carmenère is a great fit for many “untraditional”  styles of food. It is highly versatile, but goes particularly well with certain flavors and herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme plus garlic, fennel, red and black pepper, curry powder, saffron, paprika, anise and cumin. Not one of us has had a “go-to” wine for most of this list. But, add in olives, black and green, mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, onions, sweet potatoes and corn. And it pairs well with a variety of meat including lamb, stewing beef, pork sausages, chicken, duck, rabbit, wild boar and venison.

The winery for our Carmenère is Calcu. “Calcu” is a Mapuche Indian term that means “healing doctor” or “magician.” Calcu is the second label to Viñas Maquis. Not to be a name dropper, but, since 2005, Maquis has worked with Xavier Choné, a viticulturalist, who consults with Chateau Yquem, Léoville Las Cases, Opus One and Dalla Valle. Under his guidance the Maquis vineyards, including Calcu, were planted and farmed with a minimum of irrigation. And, Carmenère is planted in the warmest sites. For their winemaking, Maquis and Calcu are guided by Jacques Boissenot who also heads the winemaking at Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour and Mouton Rothschild, four of the five first growths in Bordeaux. I guess, if we’re going to name drop, we might as well run with the big dogs.

So, finally, the Calcu Carmenère is made with grapes that come from the Maquis Estate, in the heart of the Colchaqua Valley. The alluvial soil is about six and a half feet thick and well drained. The grapes ripen without any greenness, and the late picking of the grapes allows for their spiciness and black fruit aromas to develop. These grapes are all picked by hand, fermented in stainless steel tanks with total maceration lasting for 24 days — five days of that at cold temperatures before fermentation was started. Twenty percent of the wine is aged for nine months in used French oak barrels. This wine is medium bodied with dark cherry aromas and flavors, mild black fruit notes, spiciness (think baking spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, peppers and curry) and moderate tannins.

Think $20 and you’ll really appreciate all its flavors and textures. See it for $13.99 on the shelf, and guess what? A new favorite. Yep. Bull and all. Enjoy.

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