How Carménère grape varieties got confused with Merlot grapes in Chile is a mystery to one of the most celebrated winemakers of that country, Marcelo Papa – who oversees Casillero del Diablo and Marques de Casa Concha lineup of wines for one of the largest wineries in Chile, Concha y Toro, established in 1883. “Around the 1870s people in Chile wanted to push the quality for wine and so naturally during that time they looked towards Bordeaux,” noted Marcelo. Carménère was one of the red grape varieties brought back from Bordeaux as well with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but throughout the 1900s vines that were labeled as Merlot were, in actuality, Carménère; so in 1994 when the world was starting to fall in love with Chilean Merlot, and the country was just beginning to make a name for itself in the wine world, it was discovered that much of the Merlot was Carménère. And so, initially, it was a blow for the wine industry in Chile as many around the world looked down at Carménère as it was an unknown grape; some questioned whether Bordeaux gave up on it as a grape variety because it has low quality potential but that would prove to be false as not only have winemakers such as Marcelo in Chile showed otherwise but wine producers in Bordeaux are starting to plant Carménère again.
Marcelo Papa, who has been with Concha y Toro for over 20 years, is known as the “seeker of noble roots” as well as the “terroir hunter” for his relentless mission to explore every pocket of the various wine areas within Chile, a country that spans 2,600 miles in length. This characteristic of Marcelo has made it possible for him to blend a multitude of vineyards across Chile to achieve impressive consistency for their Casillero del Diablo line that makes millions of bottles a year and retails $10 and below, as well as overseeing the much smaller production of Marques de Casa Concha that focuses on high quality vineyards in wine regions that are ideal for a specific variety, that only retails for around $20. One of the most famous wine regions is Maipo for Cabernet Sauvignon which sells like hot cakes around the world as well as garners acclaim from top wine critics but convincing people that Chile has an ideal wine region for Pinot Noir is a much more challenging feat.
But finding the ideal vineyards for Carménère has become just as important to Marcelo as it is to find the ideal homes for famous international varieties, and it is one of his favorite grapes – he has certainly been able to display its greatness even as it still sits in the shadow of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since Carménère originally came from Bordeaux, it is not surprising that it shares the same father with Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet Franc. But a key difference is that Carménère needs a longer growing season than Cabernet and so it is a very “demanding variety when it comes to soil and climate” according to Marcelo and hence why, in the past, with constant issues with frost in Bordeaux, it became a variety unpractical to grow in that area. Marcelo noted that Carménère is typically the last variety that they pick and it is harvested at least two weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon. But despite Carménère’s tendency to be difficult, Marcelo is taken by the variety as he says enthusiastically, “It is soft without the sweet impact that Merlot has and in that way I like it.” Although Carménère has thick skins, the qualities of the tannins are “beautiful” if it is grown in the right place.
The Peumo D.O. designated wine region in Cachapoal Valley, 93 miles south of Santiago, is one of the best places Marcelo has found for Carménère. He thinks there is a misconception that Carménère has to be in a warm climate as he believes the bigger issue is frost considering the long season and so the most important thing is to plant it in an area where there is no risk of frost during budding in the spring or harvest at the end of the season. Their Peumo Vineyard is well-suited for Carménère as it sits right in between the Pacific Ocean and Andes Mountains with the addition of having hills that surround it and so it is not greatly influenced by cold breezes from either side, hence avoiding frost and allowing a moderate climate so the grapes can hang on the vine longer; the porous soil which allows access to a water table in the Peumo Vineyard is also helpful with its mixture of clay, silt and sand – 1/3 of each – that contains a decent amount of nutrients, both the water and nutrients assist in sustaining the long life of Carménère grape bunches on the vine.
Originally Cabernet Sauvignon was the main grape planted in the Peumo area in the Cachapoal Valley due to its popularity but Marcelo notes that it was never that good and that the Carménère there was stunning and hence there are many wine producers nowadays with Carménère vineyards there. The richness of the soil that is so vital for Carménère is detrimental for high quality Cabernet Sauvignon wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon in the Maipo Valley, located right outside of Santiago, was key in showing the world that Chile could make fine wines that could stand up to the great wines of the world as well as show the ability to express place. The Puente Alto and Pirque vineyards in the Puente Alto D.O., that goes into their Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon, are in the coolest part of Maipo as there are no wind breaks, such as hills, hence leaving the vineyards open to the cold wind from the Humboldt Current traveling up from Antarctica; the Humboldt Current combined with the vineyards’ altitude at 2,100 feet both contribute to these plots being able to produce cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon. The diurnal swings in temperature that can range from 30 to 40 Fahrenheit is conducive to assisting the Cabernet grapes finding a balance of ripe fruit, soft tannins and good amount of acidity as well as allowing the retention of more aromatics; and on top of that, the poor nutrient alluvial soil – with a subsoil of gravel – makes Cabernet struggle which adds to its high quality potential.
But there is no need to convince wine drinkers today of the wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon wines that are coming out of Chile, especially Maipo Valley, as it has become a classic place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. Although convincing the wine world that Chile can make world class Pinot Noir wine is something entirely different as it is already a struggle to get some to consider anything outside of Burgundy as being worthy of consideration, and even when other wine regions are deemed to be worthy of making Pinot Noir it is due to their vineyards having similar qualities to Burgundy vineyards.
It is difficult to initially wrap one’s mind around Chile, a country that is generally placed in the category of having a Mediterranean climate, as being capable of growing high quality Pinot Noir grapes that make elegant wines. But the couple examples above already show the extreme diversity of terroir in Chile.
The Limarí Valley, 200 miles north of Santiago, offers a unique place for such a finicky grape as Pinot Noir as its desert-like landscape averages only four inches of rain a year and so the lack of moisture is a positive aspect for this thin-skinned grape variety that can be prone to mildew in wet conditions. Yet the designated wine region of Limarí D.O. in the Limarí Valley is on the 30th parallel south of the equator, which also passes through Egypt and northern Mexico, and so one would think it would be too hot. This is where becoming a terroir hunter like Marcelo comes in handy as he has found a plot called Quebrada Seca Vineyard that is only 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean and so the Humboldt Current can have a strong effect in this vineyard, which is also located 620 feet above sea level; the vineyard never gets much beyond 75 Fahrenheit, according to Marcelo, even during the hottest time of the year. There is still the danger of too much sunlight intensity as this area is significantly close to the equator but that is again when picking the right site comes in handy as a decent amount of the Limarí area has cloudy skies practically every morning and so the sun has a natural filter, and then the clouds disappear in the later afternoon only giving a few hours of unfiltered sun to the Pinot Noir grapes.
Limestone is found in the soils located in the Limarí Valley which is rare in Chile and hence it has made its name with the Chardonnay grape that loves the finesse that can come from limestone, and Marcelo also makes a Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay wine as well as a Pinot Noir from their Quebrada Seca Vineyard. But Marcelo notes that there is not just limestone but also a mixture of clay which produces Pinot Noir wines with good concentration combined with overall elegance and a sense of minerality.
Different Background but Same Result
Even with all the unique qualities that are part of the topography and climate of Limarí Valley, when comparing it to other Chilean wine regions, the idea of high quality Pinot Noir from Chile is still a concept that many refuse to accept. Actually, the Limarí Valley is known for Chardonnay and Syrah wines, with two different styles of Syrah grown – a cool climate style from the coast and a warm climate style from more inland vineyards. There is a kind of sanctity when it comes to really good Pinot Noir wine and one can understand it if she knows Burgundy wines well.
But just like a person’s success is typically mapped out by first starting with a respected pedigree, whether it be history of ancestors, a recognized education or both, and those in Burgundy have the history for great Pinot Noir and the education that has been passed down for several generations, through time people have realized that is not the only way. There are certainly those who don’t get the best start in life, they have no strong guidance early on and go against the traditional idea of what is necessary for success, and yet they change the world through determination and an unquenchable passion, and that was Chile in many ways when it first entered the wine industry. And as Chile has taken leaps and bounds raising the quality of their wines just over the past 30 years, Marcelo Papa, the terroir hunter, will not only rest with the success of Cabernet Sauvignon or even Carménère, as there are spots within the 600 miles of vineyards he works with throughout the year that are unimaginable when people think of Chile’s vineyard potential; and it may sometimes be a marketing nightmare when dealing with Pinot Noir but he is committed to matching the right grape to the right terroir even if that bring a whole slew of challenging misconceptions.
- 2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Chardonnay, Limarí D.O., Limarí Valley, Chile: 100% Chardonnay. A lovely salinity to this wine with hints of oyster shell and lemon blossom that had a subtle note of hazelnut and touch of juicy peach to balance out the bright acidity.
- 2019 Marques de Casa Concha, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Pinot Noir, Limarí D.O., Limarí Valley, Chile: 100% Pinot Noir. Beautiful red and black cherry, purple flowers and intense minerality with crisp acidity, a really delicate and pretty Pinot Noir.
- 2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Peumo Vineyard Carménère, Peumo D.O., Cachapoal Valley, Chile: 94.67% Carménère, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 0.33% Cabernet Franc. A tasty savory herbal note of fresh bay leaf and oregano with wet earth and silky tannins with lots of juicy blackberry fruit and a spicy finish.
- 2018 Marques de Casa Concha, Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto Vineyard and Pirque Vineyard, Puente Alto D.O., Maipo Valley, Chile: 86.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 2.1% Syrah and 1.4% Petit Verdot. Cassis flavor with precision that had gravel and tobacco leaf notes adding complexity with well-managed tannins, round with only a touch of grip, and finished with a lifted fresh sage aroma.
* This article was published in Forbes on Thursday, December 30, 2021.