When any wine area is establishing itself on an international stage, it helps to be able to rely on a single grape variety, at least in the beginning. In New Zealand, for example, that was sauvignon blanc; pinot noir followed. For Argentina, the grape has been malbec.
In Chile, vintners grow a little bit of everything. The climate, like that of California, is quite diverse, so it's hard to single out one grape. However, I'd argue that its wine industry is built on cabernet sauvignon, both the bargain versions and the pricier ones. Chile isn't necessarily famous for cab, in the way that its neighbor is for malbec, but cab is the workhorse of the industry.
There is ample opportunity for other grapes to shine. Sauvignon blanc from cooler regions such as Casablanca Valley and Leyda are great buys. Pinot noir from the same regions has gained some traction.
Two red grapes from Chile that I find really interesting are varieties that, like cabernet, start with a C: carmenere and carignan.
Carmenere is, in a way, Chile's signature grape. It didn't originate there -- carmenere came from Bordeaux, along with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, in the mid-19th century -- but the Chileans are the only vintners to have really run with it. Carmenere pretty much disappeared in France when the vine louse phylloxera forced the replanting of vineyards in the late 1800s.
Carmenere will never be as big in Chile as cabernet sauvignon is, nor will it become what malbec is to Argentina. As they found in Bordeaux, carmenere is tricky to grow and ripens very late. And its savory flavor profile -- cracked pepper is a common trait -- sometimes doesn't appeal to wine drinkers who like a lot of lush fruit.
Carmenere has improved a lot in the past two decades. It was originally planted alongside merlot; for years, much of Chile's carmenere was actually thought to be merlot. The discrepancy, which was officially recognized in 1996, probably accounts for why so much Chilean merlot used to be so wretched. If the grapes were picked when the real merlot was ripe, the carmenere was green and vegetal; if harvested when the carmenere was ripe, the merlot was pruney.
One of Chile's top carmeneres used to be promoted as a merlot: Lapostolle's Clos Apalta, from the Apalta subregion of the warm Colchagua Valley. The wine, produced in a dramatic, multilevel winery on an Apalta hillside, is about 70 percent carmenere. The 2009 ($90) is big, ripe and spicy, with black fruit, mocha and orange peel notes. It's very well-made for a bigger style. For about $25, you can find Lapostolle's Cuvee Alexandre carmenere, which is also quite dense and concentrated.
Marcelo Papa, one of the winemakers at Concha y Toro, Chile's largest wine company, thinks that the top carmeneres from Chile will age longer than cabernet sauvignon, although he acknowledges that may not be true for some of the riper styles. His 2010 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere ($22) may not live for years, but it's delicious now, with ample dark fruit, cracked pepper and fine tannins.
There are also some very good, bargain-priced carmeneres, such as the 2011 Apaltagua Reserva Carmenere ($12), which combines ripe black cherry fruit with a strong note of cracked pepper; the 2010 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere ($15), which is dark and dense, with black cherry, cracked pepper and fine tannins; and the peppery, medium-weight 2010 Paso Grande Carmenere ($10).
Chilean carignan (the U.S. spelling is carignane) is a much more limited product. Most of it comes from old, dry-farmed vineyards in the Maule Valley. Much of it was pulled out, and the remaining grapes were being used in blends by big companies. However, it's been rediscovered in recent years and produces some very interesting wines.
Edgard Carter, who makes the wines for Oveja Negra, says, "The soul of Maule is carignan. ... Personally, it's one of the wines that I love most."
Oveja Negra wines are scheduled to be introduced in California early next year. One carignan that is available now is the 2010 Meli Carignan ($16). It is lively and spicy, with fine tannins, and it benefits from some air.
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.