FOR A CENTURY, it was thought to be extinct. Then like some mythical creature, it reappeared to the wonder and delight of wine lovers.
Carménère once was a cherished red grape variety Bordeaux, rivaling even cabernet sauvignon for supremacy. However, a tiny root louse called phylloxera devastated most of the vineyards across Europe in the latter half of the 19th century.
While cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot were replanted, carménère was not because it was difficult to find. It simply vanished into antiquity, mourned by wine lovers as a lost artifact.
Fortunately, before the plague, Chileans took cuttings of what they thought was merlot and planted it, producing an extremely unusual wine for the next 150 years. As it turned out, as much as half of the merlot planted in Chile actually was carménère, a fact finally discovered in 1994.
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Just three years later, the father-son team of Gary and Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla managed to get some carménère cuttings from a vineyard in California and planted it at their Mill Creek Vineyard. In 1998, it was planted at Seven Hills Vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley.
Today, a few acres are scattered about Washington, as grape growers, winemakers and consumers are equally fascinated by this red grape that once was thought relegated to history books. In the Horse Heaven Hills, for example, seven acres are planted.
In 2003, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery in Walla Walla began making carménère, though he originally was going to label it as “grande vidure,” an old Bordeaux synonym that no longer is in use. He was not the first to produce a varietal bottling of the wine in the Walla Walla Valley, so he capitulated and called it carménère. But he still harbors thoughts of producing a wine under the grande vidure name.
Though carménère remains little more than a curiosity in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps a dozen examples can be found in Washington and Oregon, and they tend to be deliciously graceful and focused.
If you are interested in exploring the world of carménère, ask for examples — from Washington or Chile — at your favorite wine merchant, then pair them with lamb, teriyaki beef or lentil stew.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.