Photo by Brian O’Keefe

by Scott Sadil

Here’s a good one—especially the next time you find yourself fishing in Chile, and your host sits you down next to, say, the duke and duchess of Cimmeria, who just happen to be visiting, looking for a taste of trouting, as well.

“¿Desea algo de beber?”

Glad you should ask.

The Carmenèré grape has a long and storied history, going back further than the vineyards in Bordeaux planted by the Romans.  A member of the Cabernet family of grapes, Carmenèré enjoys a pedigree closely associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  Wine historians consider Carmenèré one of the six original red grapes of Bordeaux.

In the second half of the 19th century, vineyards throughout Europe were decimated by the phylloxera louse epidemic, introduced from native grapes in America. Vineyards were eventually re-established by grafting European grapes onto American rootstock, which exhibited a natural resistance to phylloxera.  The Camenèré grape, however, proved more difficult than other Bordeaux grapes to graft and grow successfully on the imported rootstock, and the grape was all but abandoned.

Thought to be extinct, Carmenèré grapes were “rediscovered” 150 years later in Chile’s central valley, where they grew alongside the popular Merlot grapes first brought by Chilean vignerons as cuttings from 19th  century Bordeaux. Found to make up as much a fifty per cent of the so-called Merlot harvest, the Carmenèré grape had given Chilean “Merlots” a distinct flavor popular among red wine lovers throughout South America and much of the rest of the world.

In 1994, DNA testing confirmed that close to half of the so-called Merlot grapes grown in Chile were actually Carmenèré.  In 1998, officials finally recognized Carmenèré as a distinct variety of wine grape.

The good news is that the Carmenèré grape continues to thrive in the warm, semi-arid interior valleys south of Santiago.  Better still, wine from the grape pairs handsomely with the country’s exceptional beef, whether grilled or roasted, while proving especially compatible with meat cooked over an open flame and pulled straight off the bone during a riverside lunch.

Need I say more? I could, perhaps, crib from other sources some decorative or imaginative language about the hints of fruits and nuts and coffee and chocolate, and maybe even oiled leather, that exist in a glass of good Carmenèré.  But, come on, how much are you really going to trust a fishing writer talking about wine?

That said, I should also point out that you can hear nearly the exact same tale, about bringing Carmenèré back from the brink, on the other side of the Andes, where Argentines have been known to claim that they were the ones to save the grape, not the Chileans.

But that’s another story.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil once failed three times in succession to identify a wine as either dry or sweet in front of a French sommelier in New Zealand.  Since then, he tries to keep most of his guesses, about wine, to himself.