Malbecs are known for being dark-colored, thick on the palate, and full of black-fruit notes, but I think Carmenere’s flavor profile and body are in some ways more adaptable to modern dining habits than Malbec’s. To compare it to two other well-known grapes, Carmenere is a bit softer than Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch gamier than Merlot in the flavor department. Red fruit (raspberries, red currants, and the like) and spice are usually Carmenere’s dominant notes, with a plush, mouth-filling feel when it’s done right.
In tasting 33 of them recently, there were ups and downs, for sure. Sometimes winemakers try to lay it on a little thick, as in syrupy. But when they’re good, as exemplified by Viña Veranda Oda Carmenere 2009 ($25), they can have a place at my table anytime. Symmetry, great use of oak, deep black cherry notes—Oda’s got it all. I imagine it paired with a pork dish cooked low and slow like Cocoa and Spice Slow-Roasted Pork with Onions.
Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2008 ($17) toggles between overripe (in a good way) plum and black currant, completely belied by its floral nose. The nose and taste don’t exactly match, but it’s a nice surprise and a good value.
Three wines made it into the pricey-but-delicious category. Antiyal Viñedo Escorial Carmenere 2008 ($65) has an earthy nose but is surprisingly agile on the palate, with nice red fruit and hints of blood orange and coconut. Give it a go with the Curried Lentil Soup, and let the spicy notes ricochet back and forth between the wine and the dish. Santa Helena Notas de Guarda Carmenere 2009 Colchagua Valley ($39) is black in color, with dusky plum and blackberry notes. It’s blended with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, which helps explain its dark cast. Chilcas Las Almas Maule Valley Carmenere 2008 ($40) charms you primarily with a Margaux-like silkiness and serpentine body, along with ripe, smoky fruit flavors.
Luckily there’s Anakena Single Vineyard Carmenere 2009 ($14) to demonstrate the savvy pricing proposition for which South American wines have become justly famous. It’s lighter than its brethren, but it pours out nice strawberry notes in a balanced package. It’s sensible, sane, and tasty—proving yet again that with former Bordeaux grapes, “going south” is not a bad thing at all.