The bottle was not particularly distinctive. I took little note of the winery name and there was no reason to pay attention to the vintage. My husband and I were waiting for friends in the comfortable lobby lounge of our hotel in Santiago, Chile, before venturing out to a nearby casual eatery for dinner.
Our trip, which had begun the morning before in Little Rock, AR, had been long, though exciting, and our arrival in Santiago had not been without an unfortunate attempt at credit card fraud by a cab driver. We had been cautioned, but even advance warnings, unfortunately, do not always protect foreign travelers. (See my related piece about travel precautions.)
However, we had arrived and been welcomed at the charming Hotel Ismael in the vibrant Lastarria District, put the weariness of a long flight, airport lines, and transport frustration behind us, and were planning how to best take advantage of our time in Chile.
A quiet aperitif morphed into a group sampling as we were joined by others in the lobby. I had asked for a glass of a pleasant local red wine, ready to accept what our server chose. My husband ordered a white variety, and we talked about our fresh impressions of the city that we had arrived in only a few hours earlier.
At first sip, I was intrigued by the rich, smooth, deep red of this wine I had never heard of. We quickly learned that the Carmenere is sometimes known as “the lost grape of Bordeaux,” a variety that was nearly destroyed by Phylloxera plague that devastated European vineyards in 1867. It was virtually “extinct” for nearly 100 years. Rediscovered by accident in 1994, the grape had been mistaken for Merlot until a Chilean vintner noticed that some vines took longer to ripen than normal Merlot grapes. Upon investigation, it was determined that they were actually Carmenere, and production in Chile took off.
Our visit to Chile brought us to the heart of the Maipo Valley, not far where the river of the same name flows out of the Andes Mountains. Several of our traveling companions scheduled winery tours during our two days in Santiago. They were captivated by the variety and the quality of local wines produced, the reasonable prices, and the beauty and appeal of the Chilean countryside, seemingly perfectly suited to support a growing winemaking tradition. Participants in one such winery tour brought back a quartet of partially-consumed bottles, which we willingly sampled in the lobby with the blessings of hotel staff.
Today, Chile is home to 90% of the world’s production of Carmenere, and a wide variety of wine is produced along Chile’s sinewy landscape from the far north to the extreme south. Some grapes are exported to other areas, and replantings of Carmenere vines are currently underway in other parts of the world. Wine produced from these grapes may be difficult to find at my home in Arkansas, but the market is growing, and its future is almost assured.
The combination of ripe and spicy fruit flavors, rich texture, soft tannins, and some notes of black or green pepper, herbs and cacao add to its unique character. I must say that is a wine critic’s description; all I can attest to is that I found it very pleasant and I immediately liked it. It is a wine that can hold its own with beef dishes and with vegetables as we learned when we later ordered a bottle with dinner, but we found it an exemplary choice with almonds, walnuts, and raisins — the snacks that appeared in tandem with our glasses that first afternoon in the hotel lobby.
It was a wine I found easy to sip and easy to savor, so much so that we purchased two bottles from the hotel stock to bring aboard our cruise ship when we sailed two days later from Valparaiso. We were pleased as well by the other Chilean and Argentinian wines we sampled in South America. During a port stop in Montevideo, Uruguay, we toured an up-and-coming young vineyard to learn more about production and the demand for fresh, new wines from other regions in South America. The varieties and the vintages are notable and worth sampling.
Sadly, Vines Wine Bar aboard Sapphire Princess had sold out of its stock of Chilean and Argentinian wine halfway through our voyage, proving just how interesting and drinkable these varieties really are! But, one of the onboard activities was a wine tasting that was well attended and highly informative.
Now back home, I will be checking with local wine importers to determine what’s available in my area. I am hoping to find Carmenere, but I will also be on the lookout for other South American wines. My husband and I look forward to sampling some, and we are eager to visit the Argentinian Coffee and Wine Bar in Hot Springs. I can testify that South American wines are a great choice for good times with friends.
Want to learn more about Carmenere, the grapes that were misclassified for decades as Merlot? Check out these articles: https://winemakermag.com/article/1142-south-american-grapes; and https://www.winemag.com/2022/09/13/rediscovering-chilean-carmenere/