Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Never go home too early; Blushing rule #14.

Last week, if I had, I would have missed a dinner prepared by a world class chef who, although not even 40 years of age, has already died twice in his own estimation. The first time he took a bullet in a Cuban siege.

The second was when he came to the United States on an inner tube from Cuba. When people use the word "survivor" in the future, I will hold them against my memory of him.

He is one of the finest chef's in the world, a died-in-wool American from the melting pot we pay a lot of lip service to being these days, and a credit to these shores.

At one point during dinner, the topic of the wine known as Carmenere was discussed. No idea what it was, my boss leaned over told me, "It's an old world grape of Bordeaux, we grew it for a while but had to rip it all out, it didn't succeed."

A motion to the staff, a few words in Spanish, and a bottle appears without ceremony. "Carmenere," said the Chef, "It's so good. From Chile. They have it right." He looked over the bottle carefully, took it between his capable hands and uncorked it.

This thing in my glass was dark as night, like onyx laid against edges of bloody scarlet velvet. It swirled around the glass like a dramatic black wine ocean. Its nose didn't leap, more like lingered in the frame of the glass and waited for visitors to come and experience this huge black fruit and leather power. It ran like life blood across the palate, woke you up in Alice's Wonderland, and left you panting, with a glass in your hand you silently implored fate never to allow to go empty.

Finally, I know a wine like that. And I know the guy who fearlessly served an old, almost mystical vines' wine with an Argentinian steak that was almost as unforgettable. This grape, not unlike the gentleman who selected the Carmenere that night, was once given up for dead. Genetic testing in the modern era confirmed Carmenere had indeed survived from colonial transport on 14,000 acres in Chile.

Hard not to wonder now if Chef appreciates the hard-lifers, the ones left for dead, the survivors, over all comers. For their depth, for the stories that will be told about them, survivors are the best wines, and the best dinner guests, I see now.

It was refreshing not to be poured an easy winner of a great wine from a chateau whose name carried it when its products were less than stellar. Give me the quiet underdog over the legend any day, unrecognizable and a little otherworldly and introduced as a perfect stranger; rule #15.

That chef thinks I wear ballet flats all the time because that is how he met me, after an event. What that guy doesn't know about me is only a drop in the bucket compared with what he inarguably does know: That life is not for the faint hearted, that you have to seek out danger and mystics - even if only for your wine glass - and that if you are going to die, you better have been able to say you lived.

My hat is off to Chef, to his talent, to his wine, and to this melting pot of ours.

And now, meet Carmenere, seek out a fine one and worthy company for the drinking:

Similarly, (in Chile) vines called Merlot are in fact a mixture, and sometimes a field blend of Merlot and the Old Bordeaux variety, Carmenere, first identified as such in Chile in 1994.

The vine identification required to distinguish Merlot from Carmenere is continuing and since the end of the mid 1990's the word Carmenere has emerged on wine labels and is increasingly respected both as a varietal and, perhaps more suitably, an ingredient in a blend.

It is rarely acknowledged in the vineyards of Bordeaux today, but was, according to Daurel, widely cultivated in the Medoc (France) in the early 18th century and with Cabernet Franc, established the reputations of its best properties. He reports that the vine is vigorous and used to produce exceptionally good wine but was abandoned because if its susceptibility to coulure and resultant low yields.

It yields small quantities of exceptionally deep colored, full bodied wines and may even be, like Petit Verdot, the subject of a revival. Chateau Clerc Milon, the Pauillac (France) classed growth, admits to its presence in their encepagement and the odd varietal emerged on to the Bordeaux market in the early 2000's.

It's new power base is in Chile, where it was discovered in 1994, a substantial proportion of the vines previously believed to be Merlot are in fact this historic variety, presumably imported directly from Bordeaux in the late 19th century.

It has the potential to make very fine wines combining some of the charm of Merlot and the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. Excessive herbacousness can sometimes dominate its tomato-like flavours but the Chileans have already acknowledged that at least 15,000 acres of their vines were Carmenere by 2004. More than 4,000 acres previously thought to be Cabernet Franc in northern Italy have also been identified as Carmenere... which may be legally used for blending in the Veneto, Trentino, a Fruili (regions). Ca'del Bosco of Lombardia make a sturdy, robustly-priced varietal called Carmenero from it.

- The Oxford Companion to Wine, Janice Robinson


Teresa Hatfield said...

Thank you for sharing! Sounds perfect.
Teresa (Splendid Sass)

Parisienne Farmgirl said...

OH MY - you actually put Carménere into WORDS! You did it! You really did! It's one of my favs and I will NEVER forget the first time I tried it.
Tonight is date night with Big Daddy - may have to walk over to the wine shoppe!

High Heeled Life said...

I just stumbled across your corner of BlogLand ... and how wonderful to find this post. A wine that survived, despite the odds. I will definitely seek out this wine the next time I'm at the LCBO.

Survivors have of way truly appreciating life and the simple things. I am so happy for you that you were fortunate to have meant and experience the world through the Chef.

If you have a chance pop over for a visit;

Lucy said...

Great post! My mouth is watering...I've got to find that wine!

Stephanie said...

I love how you weave a tale. This sounds fantastic.

Nan said...

My Chef recently brought home a little stash of the vino pictured above...and you are spot on in your description. It is a special wine you don't run into often and reading about it was fascinating. Thanks!

pve design said...

I just wrote it on my hand so I do not forget it on the way shop destination.
Sounds like this survivor is due a celebration!

Liz, Viive and Benji said...

Great article and super writing. I'll be back soon

tintin said...

Big reds in Summer? Are you nuts? The one thing you are is a brilliant writer. Most evocative review. I'll try it -- In the Fall.