I try to spread the love a little with my coverage of wine, and I mean that geographically. Given my location and abundance of good wine here, I’m happy if roughly half of the wines I cover are from Australia. However, I do like some diversity in the other half, and the last time I wrote about a wine from South America was over a month ago. So without further delay, and finishing the A-B-C theme of the week with a varietal Carmenère, our wine today is the Viña Casa Silva Microterroir de los Lingues Carmenère 2005.
First, the basics. Carmenère is a grape originally of French origin and at one point part of the red Bordeaux blend. In the early 1700s, it and Cabernet Franc were both well regarded and widely cultivated in the Médoc. However, it is susceptible to poor fruit set, and when so afflicted produces greatly reduced yields. It is also doesn’t respond well to grafting onto rootstock (or at least not as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), so when the vineyards of Bordeaux were replanted post the phylloxera outbreak, Carmenère was very much marginalized. Today the grape is nearly extinct within France. However, it somehow managed to escape the disaster under an assumed name and was living quietly in Chile until unmasked in 1994 by DNA profiling. That probably deserves an explanation.
Carmenère is a red grape that does well with a long, warm growing season, produces wine of deep colour, and can have some of the same juicy, fruit characters found in Merlot. It buds and flowers somewhat late, though usually within a week of Merlot. In fact, the similarities with Merlot are such that if you were only familiar with one of them, it would be easy to confuse the two. Something along those lines happened when clippings from Bordeaux were sent to Chile in the 19th century, pre-phylloxera. Plantings of Merlot and Carmenère were intermingled but it was mistakenly assumed that they were exclusively Merlot. As the wine industry grew, plantings of Carmenère expanded, such that Chilean “Merlot” was known for having a somewhat unique flavour profile, though as Carmenère had largely disappeared from the rest of the planet, is was widely thought that it was the influence of a particular clone or the Chilean terroir. Few suspected it was because it wasn’t in fact Merlot.
While it is easy to confuse Carmenère for Merlot in the vineyard, there are some clues to tell them apart if you look carefully, from differences in leaf colour and leaf lobe shape through to Carmenère bunches being more compact and ripening two weeks after Merlot. In 1994 Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier put the pieces of the puzzle together and confirmed that much of what was thought to be Merlot was in fact Carmenère. (He’s since done similar work with Viognier clones that had been thought to be Roussanne.)
Chile, to their credit, turned on a dime (or perhaps a 10 peso coin) and turned what could have been embarrassment into a point of pride, having been the guardians of a largely vanished variety for 150 years. Since then, Carmenère has become the hero grape of Chile, as have Malbec in Argentina and Tannat in Uruguay, like prophets without honour in their own country. While it is not the country’s most widely planted grape, fifth actually behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, it’s uniquely identified with and championed by Chile.
This is not the first wine in this blog from the Colchagua Valley, but the Viña Ventisquero Pangea Syrah was from Apalta at the far end of the valley from Viña Casa Silva, and when I wrote about the Pangea I was more concerned with that somewhat rarified terroir than the Valley as a whole. Just to review, the Colchagua Valley is in the Rapel subregion which in turn is part of the Central Valley region, and the east end of the valley is roughly 120km south along the Panamerican Highway from Santiago. The climate is generally warm and at the east end tends toward continental, though this is mitigated by maritime influenced breezes the further west you go toward the Pacific Ocean. Soil types vary, with clay, sand and decomposed granite being typical. Plantings in the Valley are largely red, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up more than half of the total area under vine, while Carmenère and Merlot round out the top three varieties.
The origins of Viña Casa Silva can be traced to Emile Bouchon who emigrated to Chile from Bordeaux in 1892 and started a family business growing grapes and making wine which was then sold on to other wineries. This continued over several generations, with the fortune and lands being divided and then reunited over the time, until in 1997 Mario Pablo Silva (with the Silva family name being picked up through marriage of a Bouchon daughter), proposed the wine be bottled and branded for export instead of being sold in bulk. With his father, Mario Silva Cifuentes, they built the brand, and now Mario Pablo runs operations in conjunction with brothers Francisco and Gonzalo.
The company has vineyards in three distinct areas in the Valley, with this being from Los Lingues in the northern edge. They produce a very broad range of bottlings, from entry level to the very high end, largely varietal from at least ten different varieties. Like many Chilean producers, they are focused on the export market, with distribution to over 50 countries.
This wine is not in any of the ranges they advertise on their website, and I’m not certain if it is still being produced as it was part of a three year experimental project that has now concluded. Viña Casa Silva worked with Professor Yerko Moreno from the University of Talca to analyse various aspects of their terroir, in fact small plots within their holdings, hence the microterroir, to determine which varieties were best suited to each. While it’s not a popular position, I’m very sceptical of the notion of terroir, largely because there’s been so little conclusive scientific research on the topic, with many producers preferring the romantic notion of capturing the essence of a place in a bottle. (Unlike beer, where the connection with geology is well understood.) However, I’m the type of sceptic who becomes less sceptical the more scientific finding are published, therefore I applaud Viña Casa Silva and Professor Moreno for their work.
As is often the case, when I was researching for this post, I came across an article at wineanorak.com that provided far more detail than I would have been able to pull together from any number of other sources, so for more information have a look at his page on the project. I’ve recently put his blog on my sidebar, not because anyone ever clicks on those links, but because it is an excellent site and I find my research takes me there frequently. If I work hard for 15 years and get a PhD in chemistry or biology, I might hope to be as good as that site is now.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a dark garnet colour and quick, thick, coloured legs. On the nose it is clean and developing with medium plus intensity, sweet spice, red berries, and a bit of funk. On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, medium minus tannins, and a medium plus length. There are notes of black pepper, strawberry, a little charcoal/ash, and raspberries.
I rate this wine as very good. It’s certainly interesting, with the peppery, developed flavours contrasting the still sweet fruit and spice. I think it’s developing nicely, though I was a bit surprised that Carmenère is generally meant to be consumed young. I have another bottle from the Microterroir line that I think I’ll give another year or two in the cellar.