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It may not be the most recognized wine in the world, but Carmenère is the emblematic grape of Chile and, given a few years, it may begin to take its rightful place among the better known wine varieties.

A number of tour companies offer wine tours from Santiago, and a day tour to three vineyards offers stunning views of the Andes, as most vineyards are east of the city. Usually included in the tour are Concha y Toro, which is Chile’s largest producer of export wines, Undurraga and Cousiño Macul.

Chile has carved itself an impressive standing in the world wine market. Its reds are regarded as some of the best available, and in 2003, Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta Raphael Valley 2000 finished third in Wine Spectator’s Top 100. Concha y Toro’s Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Don Melchor 2000 would top this impressive feat in 2004, finishing 26th with 94 points; Viña Almaviva’s Puente Alto 2001 coming in 16th with 95 points, and Clos Apalta Colchagua 2001 achieving number two with 95 points.

Carmenère actually originated in Bordeaux. In 1860, a phylloxera outbreak devastated the French vineyards. French winegrowers replanted, adapting their varieties to a phylloxera resistant American rootstock, but Carmenère performed poorly. In the Bordeaux climate, Carmenère proved sensitive to the cold spring weather, reducing yields, and because this grape variety has to be harvested so late, the region’s early autumnal rains impaired the grape’s quality. As such Carmenère was overlooked and forgotten; not for being of poor quality but rather for its precarious natural requirements.

In Chile, however, the variety came to be inter-planted with Merlot. Growers fell into the casual habit of calling it Merlot and harvesting the grapes together. In the 1980s, when Chile began releasing a mixture of wines instead of merely Vino Tinto and Vino Blanco, the Merlot wines usually included a lot of Carmenère.

This was unfortunate, because Merlot is ripe about a month earlier than Carmenère. Unless the wineries were fastidious and waited until Carmenère was ripe to be picked, the resulting wines often consisted of unripe, vegetal flavors.

Ten years ago, several of the big Chilean wineries hired some grape experts from France to unscramble their vineyards. DNA testing was used and the Carmenère was separated from the Merlot.

Once Chile realized it had the world’s largest planting of this variety, the wineries began growing the grapes to their full ripeness. This resulted in two things: First, the Merlot improved tremendously and began featuring a ripe taste which now means that most Chilean Merlots are delicious. Second, many wineries began releasing Carmenère as a unique variety of its own. And what a wine it has become! Well-made Carmenère is a big, soft, plum-like, spicy red with mouth filling flavours that blow Merlot off the table.

Visiting Chile without tasting Carmenère is akin to going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.

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