Over the last few months, I have tasted a little more of Carmenere and Malbec than I usually do. The two varietals have distinct characteristics, but are united by an intriguingly similar past. Both were minor mixing grapes in Bordeaux, in blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec is all but out of favour in the region; as for Carmenere, it has been virtually cast-off, replaced by grape growers with the less fickle Cabernet Franc.
Both varietals have become a central part of the wine-making heritage in South America, where they were first brought in the mid-1800s. Here, both have upgraded themselves from under-appreciated mixing grapes to stunning single varietals. If Malbec has gone on to become Argentina's flagship grape, Carmenere has shown the potential to become the signature wine of Chile, which is still somewhat better known for its top-flight Cabernet Sauvignons. (There is another French discard that has found a new lease of life in South America, with Uruguay claiming Tannat as its national grape.)
The story of Malbec and Carmenere demonstrates the link between varietal and terroir — a bond which often evolves after decades of trial and error, one which can be forged in the most unexpected of places. The two varietals have played a major role in putting Argentina and Chile on the wine map. It is no accident that all recognised world wine-making countries have at least one signature varietal — New Zealand (Sauvignon Blanc), South Africa (Pinotage), Spain (Tempranillo), Italy (Sangiovese, Nebbiolo) and so on.
Chilean wine was virtually unknown until the 1980s, when changes in economic policy saw sizeable investments, much of it from abroad, being made in the wine industry. As groups from Spain (Torres), France (such as Lafite-Rothschild) and the U.S. started wineries, old Chilean estates began modernising their wine-making processes. Until 25 years ago, Chilean grape growers couldn't tell the difference between Carmenere and Merlot (which were often planted together) until a French expert discovered that a large number of grapevines were actually Carmenere, something DNA tests established.
Even today, it's hard to tell whether a Chilean Merlot is in fact a Merlot or a Carmenere; for years, wineries didn't really care, since Merlot was more acceptable internationally.
Argentina's established wine industry goes back further than Chile; it was also influenced distinctly by the Spanish, who brought white varietals such as Criolla and Crianza, before the French varietals started making an impact. Like Chile, the wine industry came to international notice only a couple of decades ago, thanks largely to the Mendoza region, which produces most of the country's wine and is home to its star grape Malbec.
Malbec is a big and tannic varietal, but Argentina has succeeded in making it with a structure, intensity and roundedness that can be transfixing. Carmenere is more medium-bodied; while suffused with the mellow softness of a good Merlot, it has a sharp and intriguing ribbon of spice, usually green pepper, which cuts right through it.
If they share any similarity, it is that they both have a rustic earthy quality — and, of course, a similar history.