Green peppercorn. Jalapeno. Smoke. Sour Cherry. Raspberry. These are all words to describe an ancient varietal that REININGER has specialized in since 2002. Carmenère, otherwise known as the Lost Bordeaux, has a long and illustrious history. Between the various synonyms the grape has shared with other varieties to the common characteristics with other fruit, Carmenère has become the mistaken doppelganger for many of the Bordeaux varieties. It’s no wonder that it hasn’t come into its own and embraced its individuality in single varietal bottling until modern day. Now it’s celebrated all over the world on November 24 on International Carmenère Day, and at REININGER we celebrate it every spring with our annual Carmenère Release Weekend (April 5-7, 2019).
Carmenère, pronounced car-men-nair, derives its current name from the Latin root “carmin”, or crimson, due to the crimson color the leaves take on in autumn. Carmenère has thought to have originally been called Biturica, which is also the original name for Bordeaux, because Tuscany used it in blends under the name “Predicato di Biturica.” It’s also been referred to as Grande Vidure, which Cabernet Sauvignon shares the same synonym. The name Grand Vidure led many to suspect Carmenère was a clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, but genetics have found it is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet.
Regardless of its many names, Carmenère once thrived in Bordeaux, France, particularly the Medoc region. One of six Noble Bordeaux red varietals, Carmenère was an important blending component in wines produced in Graves and Pessac Leognan. During the 1860s, Carmenère, along with much of France’s vines, were infested by phylloxera, a tiny little aphid that came over from America. Already a difficult grape to grow, the Carmenère vines were pulled up after the phylloxera epidemic and replaced with grapes that were higher yields for exportation: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
During this same time period (1850-1860s), French vine cuttings of what was believed to be Merlot were sent to Chile. The Chilean growers referred to the grapes as Merlot Peumal, after the Peumal Valley in Chile where the vines were originally planted. The grapes thrived in Chilean soil, but didn’t necessarily taste like your everyday Merlot. The grape is prone to methoxypyrazine, or pyrazine for short. It’s an organic compound that creates a strong peppery note in wines. It wasn’t until the 1994 when scientists tested these “Merlot” vines that they discovered it was the long-lost Carmenère grape. Today, Carmenère is the grape of Chile, just like Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of Napa, or Malbec for Argentina.
But Chile was not the only country to mistake this esoteric grape for something else. Plantings of what was thought to be Cabernet Franc made its way to Italy, Australia and New Zealand (in 1990, 2002 and 2006 respectively), but was later determined to be the illustrious Carmenère.
In 1997, Carmenère was planted purposefully in Walla Walla by Leonetti’s Chris Figgins at the Leonetti Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. The following year some of those cuttings were shared with Seven Hills Vineyard and Mark Colvin of Colvin Cellars (now out of business). REININGER purchased a block of Carmenère grapes from Seven Hills Vineyard as soon as they were eligible and our first vintage was released in 2002. To date, we are the longest running producers of Carmenère in Washington. Renowned wine writer, Paul Gregutt, hailed the 2006 Reininger Carmenère as making “a strong claim for being the best Carmenère in Washington, if not the country.”
Aged in French oak, our 2016 vintage that will be released this April has a beautiful dark crimson color and exhibits spicy aromas of black and pink peppercorn, smoke and damp soil mingled with a flood of raspberries, Rainier cherries, bramble and baking spices. Its soft tannins, bright acid and silky mouthfeel deliver layers of complexity. Smoked meats and cracked leather blend beautifully with notes of black cherry, black currant, herbs, black earth and spice to generate the perfect rustic countenance to this ancient varietal that pairs beautifully with any grilled or smoked foods.
With only 260 cases being produced primarily for our wine club members, we look forward to releasing Carmenère to the public every spring. It’s only around for a few months so stop in and experience this Lost Bordeaux and see if maybe it can find its home in your cellar.