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A glassful of smoke and flavor

Sometimes vines defy history. Take carmenère, the deep, smoky grape that was once thought lost from Bordeaux but resurfaced -- in Chile. And now in the U.S., too.

Sometimes vines defy history. Take carmenère.

One of the six noble grapes of Bordeaux, this bold, often finicky grape was thought lost after phylloxera, a devastating louse, ravaged French vineyards in the 1800s. 

Grapegrowers tried to revive it along with the region's other five key red grapes: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. But it proved hard to revive as farmers tried to graft the remnants of vines onto new, hearty roots, and was essentially lost.

Or so they thought.

Chile has long grown many Bordeaux varietals. In the early 1990s, it became clear there was something curious in the rows of merlot. DNA analysis confirmed that lots of what Chilean farmers thought was merlot was in fact carmenère, presumably transported there during the 19th century.

The two grapes look very much alike. Their respective tastes, though, are unmistakably different. Merlot is all about roundness and deep red fruit like cherries. Carmenère could at best be mistaken for its distant, dark and mysterious cousin — with a profound smoky sensibility and structure, plus darker fruit closer to blackberries. As with some of its Bordeaux counterparts, underripe carmenère can give away vegetal notes that some compare to green peppers.

And so a Bordeaux grape, now largely gone from its homeland, gets a second life. Chilean vintners, realizing they have something few other wine regions do, have staked a claim on carmenère as their flagship wine.

"Chile is trying to make of it what New Zealand did with sauvignon blanc and Argentina did with malbec," says Bebe Hutter, U.S. marketing manager for Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Her company not only produces some of the world's most well-known Bordeaux but also carmenère-based wines from its Chilean properties.

Coming to AmericaChile isn't alone. Carmenère is difficult to find in California, but a handful of Washington grapegrowers scored vines from California's Guenoc Estate and began planting in 1999 in Walla Walla vineyards like Seven Hills, on the state's southern border.

"There's so little that we know about the grape, but that's one of the fun things about it, the mystique of it," says Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery, who along with vintner Mark Colvin has helped put varietal bottles of U.S. carmenère on store shelves.

Domestic carmenère is a rare find, either alone or blended. Guenoc uses some in its meritage blends, as do the Washingtonians. Even a smidgen can make a big difference. Reininger used 3 percent to round out his 2002 Cabernet sauvignon, and left out the merlot.

Last month, I tasted Reininger's 2003 carmenère out of the barrel and found it one of the more pleasurable examples of the grape yet — with delicate berry, black and white pepper, and a glassy note that balances out the traditional smoky taste. It isn't even in bottle yet, but only about 110 cases are likely to be made, so keep a keen eye out. Most 2002 carmenère from Washington is already sold out.

Chilean producers have made the grape far more accessible to the average drinker. Santa Rita offers it in both its 120 brand of value wines and a reserve bottling. Its 2002 carmenère (Vineyard Brands, $5-7) is big on the smoke and tannins, but it's also an excellent introduction to the grape. Chilean wine giant Concha y Toro also offers affordable varietal carmenère under its Casillero del Diablo label.

Virtues of a blendPersonally, I find the grape's best use in blends, as its Bordeaux provenance would dictate. Chile, again, offers excellent examples. Baron Philippe de Rothschild's Escudo Rojo 2001 (Caravelle Wine Selections, $13-15) from the Maipo region mixes 20 percent carmenère with 70 percent Cabernet sauvignon and another 10 percent Cabernet franc. It starts with pepper and some sour fruit, then those classic carmenère notes — deep black fruit and smoke — mix in delicately with a tarry note. With just over 20,000 cases imported into the United States, it should be widely available.

Another good expression can be found in Veramonte 2002 Primus (Franciscan Estate Selections, $15-16), which ties California winemaker Augustin Huneeus to his Chilean roots.Primus mixes carmenère with Cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Its smoky notes blend with the merlot's roundness in a pretty, if not subtle, way.

In fact, carmenère rarely dabbles in subtlety, though it has its elegant moments. It can deepen with far less oak aging than other Bordeaux grapes — usually about a year's worth — and when used properly, can provide silkiness. "I love the mouthfeel of it," Reininger says.

Besides, winter isn't a time for subtle wines. It's the moment for big reds meant for the fireside. Carmenère, as a great counterpoint to burgers and grilled meats, adds a supple bit of smoke to the fire.