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By Chuck Hill

Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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Wines for Oysters
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Published July & Aug 2015

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A 4-Part Series
Published June & July 2015

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50 Shades of Chardonnay
A 4-Part Series
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Published Nov & Dec 2014

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A 3-Part Series
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Last Week's Reviews
Published September 20, 2015

Bordeaux Buddies – Part Three: 
Carmenere... and other Favorites

Part 3 of a 4-Part Series  (See Part 1
(See Part 2)  (See Part 4)
By Chuck Hill

I briefly told the tale of Bordeaux’s lost varietal in the first installment of this series. Carmenere was the sixth of the region’s red varietals that was routinely part of many red blends of the Medoc and the right bank. When phylloxera arrived from America in the 1860s, it decimated French vineyards until wine grape vines could be grafted onto resistant American (Concord type) rootstock.  Carmenere didn’t graft well (and frankly needed a warmer, drier environment than Bordeaux regularly provides). 

Fortunately, explorers and colonial adventurers to the New World had been taking cuttings to South America for more than a hundred years.  Just as Malbec became Argentina’s favorite grape in the Mendoza, so did an unnamed variety find favor in Chile.  Early ampelographers [experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grapes] recognized similarities in the leaf shape of this vine with Merlot and for more than 150 years, Carmenere in Chile was known as the “spicy clone” of Merlot.  In the 1990s, DNA identification sorted out what was what, and Chile is now the top producer of varietal Carmenere and blends. 

Carmenere is named for the deep red color of its wine.  The variety offers aromas and flavors of spicy berry, green pepper and earthy mineral.  Aged in French oak, it takes on a character reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon (of which it is reputed to be a grandparent), with spicy cassis and black cherry. 

To fill in the local scene, I’ve included some additional Cabernet Franc and Malbec selections. 

Maryhill Winery
2012 Carmenere, Sugar Loaf Vineyard
Rattlesnake Hills

This tasty Carmenere comes from the area north of Zillah, Washington, now one of the state’s newer AVAs, Rattlesnake Hills.  The wine shows what the varietal can do when given the warm vintage conditions (2012) that it prefers.  Look for plum and cherry mingling with notes of vanilla, caramel and toasty oak.  Don’t forget to visit the Gorge for a gorgeous fall experience. 

Skylite Cellars
2012 Carmenere, Seven Hills Vineyard
Walla Walla Valley

From the warm 2012 vintage, and from one of Washington’s most lauded vineyards, Skylite Cellars Carmenere offers blackberry, peppery spice, olive and bright notes of citrus and orchard blossom.  It is amazing what a warm vintage can do to bring Carmenere up to the standard of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Alexandria Nicole Cellars
2013 Carmenere, Sgt. Pepper
Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Those familiar with the Carmenere varietal might confuse the Sgt. Pepper reference as being to green peppers as opposed to black pepper (as in Pepperland, Yellow Submarine, etc.).  Like many red varietals, Carmenere reacts better to a warm vintage than a cool one, and 2013 chased away vegetal green pepper in favor of spicy black pepper.  Add aromas and flavors of blackberry, cola, coffee and dark chocolate, and you can pull the cork for your next grilled steak experience. 

Whidbey Island Winery
2012 Carmenere
Rattlesnake Hills AVA

Winemaker Greg Osenbach bottled just one barrel of this Carmenere since he normally uses the varietal as a blending component for his other Bordeaux varietal wines.  It comes from the Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills and gives a hint of the nuances possible with this grape.  Elusive notes of black cherry and plum dance with eucalyptus, tobacco and graham cracker – pairs well with meats from the grill. 

Other varietals

Alexandria Nicole Cellars
2013 Malbec, Mr. Popular, Estate
Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Winemakers Jarrod Boyle and Matt Dodson crafted this wine from fruit grown at Destiny Ridge Vineyards in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA.  It was aged in 60% new French oak and blended with just a smidge of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  It is a tight wine that needs aeration and several hours breathing to open up.  Thus encouraged, it reveals black and red cherry, fragrant lilac and rose and herbal notes of eucalyptus and sandalwood.  Put some away to enjoy with a grilled steak in 2017. 


14 Hands
2012 Malbec, The Reserve
Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Here is another fabulous Horse Heaven Hills Malbec that gives one pause to wonder about this appellation being the Mendoza of the North!  Rich fruit aromas and flavors of plum and blackberry lead to complex nuances of dark chocolate and violets, finishing with sweet tobacco and vanilla.  It opens up with just standard decanting for aeration; then bring on churrasco with chimichurri sauce. 

Maryhill Winery
2011 Cabernet Franc, Proprietor’s Reserve
Columbia Valley AVA

This wine was crafted from grapes grown at Gunkel Vineyards (Maryhill Estate), Hattrup Farms and Tudor Hills Vineyards. It carries the Columbia Valley appellation.  It was aged for 20 months in French oak, 20% new, and shows appealing notes of vanilla, smoky cedar and pipe tobacco over a base of complex blackberry, currant and bell pepper. 

Camaraderie Cellars
2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve
Yakima Valley AVA

Winemaker Don Corson crafts his wines at his location in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains near Port Angeles, Washington.  Wine lovers can visit the winery on weekends from May through October for great views and great wines.  The 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve was sourced from Chandler Reach Vineyard in the eastern Yakima Valley and was aged in mostly new French oak barrels for 20 months.  Look for rich aromas of cassis, blackberry and toasty oak with finishing notes of cocoa and spicy olive. 

Snake River Winery
2011 Cabernet Franc, Arena Valley
Snake River Valley AVA

Scott and Susan DeSeelhorst craft more than a dozen varietal wines including fruity and full-bodied whites and a wide selection of reds.  This Cabernet Franc comes from grapes grown in the Arena Valley, near the Idaho-Oregon border along a bend in the Snake River. This lighter style offers aromas and flavors of raspberry and strawberry with herbal notes and a medium-bodied palate that accompanies meats from the grill. 

Wines from other areas

2012 Carmenere, Gran Reserva
Colchauga Valley, Chile

Just to prove that you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot to get a superb Carmenere, the Koyle Gran Reserva also scored high marks with my tasters and was a superb complement to our rich, grilled meat entrée.  Look for aromas and flavors of cassis, raspberry, tobacco, tea leaf, earthy minerality and spice. 

Alka by Araucano
2011 Carmenere
Lolol Valley, Chile

“Carmenere has now become Chile’s emblematic variety…producing rich, colorful and tannic wines requiring careful attention both in the vineyard and the winery.”  This wine was at the top of my rankings showing blackberry and black currant, eucalyptus and spicy black pepper with a firm, tannic palate that opens up with breathing.  From high-density vineyards and aged in 100% new French oak, it is a stunning wine and pairs wonderfully with meats from the grill. 

Haras de Pirque
2013 Reserva Carmenere
Maipo, Chile

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates imports this tempting blend of 85% Carmenere and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley in the foothills of the Andes.  Bright berry flavors mingle with notes of black olive, baking spices and hints of cocoa.  It offers a Pinot Noir-like character that pairs well with grilled salmon as well as chicken or pork. 

Emiliana Vineyards
2011 Coyam Blend
Colchagua Valley, Chile

This blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is spiced up with just a touch of Mourvedre and Malbec to create a complex and flavorful wine to pair with your next grilled meat dinner.  Look for aromas and flavors of dark cherry and strawberry with notes of savory herbs, smoky cedar and sweet tobacco. 

2012 Carmenere
Colchagua Valley, Chile

This single-vineyard wine from Chile’s Colchagua Valley offers bright, fruit-forward cherry and strawberry aromas that mingle with spice and mineral, finishing with a pleasant touch of black pepper and a hint of oak.  Works well with lighter meats or rich fish from the grill.

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