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Carmenere: Bordeaux Saviour, or Rustic Nightmare?

I apologise immediately for the slightly sensationalistic title, but two recent items of news got me thinking about Carmenère in Bordeaux.

Cast your mind back only a week or two to my report entitled Experimental Margaux, a tasting of Margaux experiments organised by Yvon Mau and hosted in London with Richard Bampfield and Paul Pontallier at the helm. There, Pontallier gave Carmenère short shift, saying (as can be found in part 2 of my report if you are interested) that the variety was inherently rustic and, word-for-word, that a good Carmenère “is less rustic than a bad one“. There’s clearly no room for this variety, which originated in Bordeaux, in the Margaux vineyard.

Contrast that with the prevailing opinion at Brane-Cantenac; last October I visited this property (among a few other left-bank châteaux) and, in the process I learnt a lot about the vineyards and the many developments Henri Lurton and Christophe Capdeville have put in place. I’ve made a full report here, and my profile is due a corresponding update (in fact this is already done; it is lined up for publication next week). The highlight of the visit was a grand vertical tasting, starting with the 2000 and continuing forward through to a barrel sample of the 2010, and finishing with a taste of the 2011 Carmenère, a small-volume experiment from vines planted back in 2007 and which have borne fruit since the 2009 vintage. Although the variety has largely disappeared from the region because of difficult ripening (and other problems), Carmenère has been allowed back in at Brane-Cantenac because, in the face of warmer climate, later ripening varieties might be just what Bordeaux needs. Here’s a tasting impression of the wine:

Château Brane-Cantenac (Margaux) Carmenère 2011: A barrel sample (from one of five barrels filled) from the experimental planting of Carmenère on the upper part of the plateau. An amazing violet hue, vibrant yet deep. A very distinctive nose, bright yet concentrated and rich. There is a pile of dense, violet-tinged fruit but this is overlaid with bready-yeasty notes from the fermenting yeast. There are also exotic notes, floral and redolent of white peach and pear along with the dark, still-grapey fruit. The texture is full, with a firm alcoholic trace running through as a warm heat, along with masses of sweet, plump, soft and juicy fruits. On the basis of this tasting this isn’t a variety that would be able to stand alone although it could have something to contribute to a blend. A ripe, sweet, tannin-infused finish. Final alcohol likely to be at least 15.5%. No score.

We know today, with the release of this report, that Capdeville, Lurton & co. are to use the Carmenère I tasted (OK, not the actual mouthful I tasted, but you know what I mean) in the 2011 blend. What started out as an experiment has quickly been commercialised, it seems. Even if it is only 0.5% of the final blend, Carmenère is definitely ‘in’ at Brane-Cantenac.

So what is Carmenère? The saviour of Bordeaux as climate change continues, or the rustic grape of Pontallier’s nightmares?

5 Responses to “Carmenere: Bordeaux Saviour, or Rustic Nightmare?”

  1. The answer is: neither. Carmenere will not be the “saviour” of Bordeaux…the mere idea is overwrought. Neither is it necessarily a nightmare, M. Pontallier notwithstanding.

    It is, I think, a grape that might regain some grip in Bordeaux for the reasons you cited, Chris, albeit limited, I believe. And it will be, like Malbec and PV, not one of the major players. It might, eventually, reach the level of Cabernet Franc, it’s once vidure-ish cousin, but I doubt even that.

    As you said, it won’t stand alone; it is essentially a blending grape. The changing climate in Bordeaux may make it warmer—I believe it will—but it won’t make it any less damp in general, and it won’t restrain the inherent violent changeability of the weather; rather it will likely exacerbate that problem. So the finickiness that plagues Carmenere initially will still be there to cause difficulty. To reach the level of Chilean Carmenere, for instance, Bordeaux would have to be either the arid desert of Chile or the arid mountains of Northern Italy, and neither is likely, even with climate change.

    (Good article, by the way.)

  2. Well done, I think the Chileans have not done Carmenere justice as yet, but it will add greater complexity to any blend, I think the Right Bank could use some to increase interest and complexity in the Merlot based wines.

  3. Thanks Hoke, I am sure you are right, I think Carmenère will remain a minority interest in Bordeaux for a very long time yet. But what really fascinates me is not where Carmenère will end up, but how two very different bit talented individuals today see it contributing. One finds it interesting enough to plant half a hectare and just four years later the wine is going in the grand vin – not second wine, or third wine, but the number one. Meanwhile the other disregards the variety as “rustic”. Ouch!

  4. Thanks for those comments Lee. And congratulations for being the first person to bring your own gravatar to the comments pages. I was wondering when that would happen! :-)

  5. Well Chris,
    The variation in taste from the chateau luminaries just means we don’t have cookie-cutter wines. That’s good for Bordeaux’s image!