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Apaltagua Reserva Carmenere 2013
Apaltagua, owned by the seven Donoso Silva brothers, has a missionary-like zeal in its dedication to, and excitement about, the carmenère grape. The winery produces three levels of carmenère-based wines: Apaltagua Estate Carmenère, Apaltagua Envero Carmenère, and Apaltagua Grial Carmenère. Much of the fruit comes from ungrafted, 60-year old carmenère vines all located on the family estate in the prestigious Apalta district of Chile. The resulting wines are exceptionally good, with a chocolately richness and a peppery edge, combining the best attributes of merlot and cabernet sauvignon in one grape.
A source of reliable, budget-friendly wines and, increasingly, more premium bottlings, Chile is one of South America’s most important wine-producing countries. Long and thin, it is largely isolated geographically, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes Mountains to the east, and the Atacama desert to the north. These natural borders gave Chile the very favorable benefit of being the only country to avoid the disastrous phylloxera infestation of the late 1800s. As a result, vines can be planted on their own rootstock rather than grafted. Though viticulture was introduced to the country by conquistadors from Spain, today Chile’s wine production is most influenced by the French, who emigrated here in large numbers to escape the blight of phylloxera. These settlers have invested heavily in local vineyards and wineries.
Chile’s vineyards, planted mainly with international varieties, vary widely in climate and soil type from north to south. The Coquimbo region in the far north contains the Elqui and Limari Valleys, where minimal rainfall and intense sunlight are offset by chilly breezes from the Humboldt current to produce cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Aconcagua region contains the eponymous Aconcagua Valley—hot and dry and home to full-bodied red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot—as well as Casablanca Valley and San Antonio Valley, which focus on light-bodied Pinot Noir and cool-climate whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The Central Valley is home to the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, and Maule Valleys, which produce a wide variety of red and white wines. Maipo in particular is known for Carmenère, Chile’s unofficial signature grape. In the up-and-coming southern regions of Bio Bio and Itata, excellent cool-climate Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are made.
Dark, full-bodied, and herbaceous with a spicy kick, Carménère has found great success in Chile, far from its birthplace of Bordeaux. Although Carménère once accompanied Malbec and Petit Verdot as a minor blending grape in Bordeaux, it is now virtually extinct there, though it has been thriving since the mid-nineteenth century in Chile. Originally mistaken for Merlot, it is now successful of its own accord and plantings continue to increase. It is bottled both on its own and as part of Bordeaux-inspired blends.
In the Glass
If not fully ripe, Carménère is often marked by a green, herbaceous character (think green bell pepper and green peppercorn), and expresses flavors of red berry and black pepper when just ripe. With additional hangtime at the end of harvest, it is reminiscent more of blackberry, blueberry, and dark plum, with rich and savory notes of chocolate, coffee, smoke, and soy sauce.
Carménère can easily overpower lighter fare, but makes a great match for a hearty steak or barbecued red meat. It can also work well with white meat when prepared with a richer sauce such as mole.
Perhaps Carménère’s herbal character can be explained in part by familial relations—due to the strange nature of grapevine breeding, Carménère is both a progeny and a great-grandchild of the similarly flavored Cabernet Franc.