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Carmenère is the Merlot of Maipo, says Almaviva winemaker

Emblematic grape of Chile, Carmenère, plays a similar role in Cabernet-dominant blends from Maipo, as Merlot does in Pauillac, according to Almaviva winemaker, Frenchman Michel Friou.

Almaviva’s chief winemaker, Michel Friou

Speaking at a masterclass in London last week, where Friou presented the latest vintage of Chile’s Almaviva to the UK trade, he stressed the important role of Carmenère in the top-end wine – a grape variety that has virtually disappeared from its native home of Bordeaux, but thrives in South America today.

“Carmenère in Maipo is like Merlot in Pauillac,” he told attendees of the event in London on 25 September, as he introduced the 2017 vintage of the wine, which hails from a partnership formed in 1996 between Baron Phillippe de Rothschild (of Chateau Mouton Rothschild) and Concha y Toro.

Continuing, he explained, “Carmenère brings soft and velvety tannins to the wine, like Merlot does to the wines in Pauillac.”

Like the great reds of Pauillac, Almaviva is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape famed for giving wines with intense cassis flavours and firm tannins, but, unlike the wines of Left Bank Bordeaux, Almaviva contains virtually no Merlot.

“We have less than one hectare of Merlot at Almaviva, which was planted in 2001 to see how it would perform, because at the start, we thought the Carmenère was Merlot,” Friou recorded, speaking of the historic vineyards for Almaviva, which were planted in 1978, as well as referring to a Chile-wide mix-up regarding the two grape varieties.

Indeed, it was in November 1994 that French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot first identified Carmenère vines, previously thought to be Merlot, growing in Viña Carmen’s Alto Maipo vineyards.

Commenting further on the Merlot at Almaviva, which makes up a few per cent of the blend in 2017, Friou added, “Some years the Merlot does well, but it is a bit neutral, in others it is too jammy.”

In contrast, the Carmenère “changes the profile of the wines”, he recalled, saying it brings “creaminess” to the wine, although he likes to keep the proportion of the variety in the blend below 25%, because it can impart a strong herbal flavour too.

He said, “Cabernet has more structure, it is more vertical with present tannins and so it needs something rounder to smooth the angles of the Cabernet… doing a 100% Cabernet is very difficult even if you are in best the terroir, you need something to make the wine more friendly and accessible, and clearly the Merlot plays this role in the Medoc. And for us, Carmenère, with its low acidity and velvety tannins – and very good colour – helps to smoothen the wine and even a bit more than Merlot, brings creaminess. And that’s what makes our wine more accessible than 100% or 90% Cabernet from Chile too.”

As for the 2017 release of Almaviva, this has 23% Carmenère, which Friou said brings not only smoothness to the Cabernet – which comprises 65% of the blend – but also a “spiciness” to the blend, which was “contrary to what we expected, because 2017 was a very warm year”.

The blend of Almaviva 2017 is below:

Cabernet Sauvignon: 65%
Carmenère: 23%
Cabernet Franc: 5%
Petit Verdot: 5%
Merlot: 2%

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