Thursday, January 9, 2020

Twelve vintages of Black Hills Carménère

Photo: Black Hills winemaker Ross Wise

The most memorable tasting in which I participated in 2019 was a vertical tasting in June of 12 vintages of Carménère produced by Black Hills Estate Winery.

Black Hills was the first winery to plant Carménère in the Okanagan. It remains one of three or four wineries growing this old Bordeaux red varietal. The wine is virtually exclusive to the Black Hills wine club, where it has acquired a cult following, deservedly so.

The tasting was hosted by Glenn Fawcett, now the Black Hills wine evangelist, and Ross Wise, to soon-to-be Master of Wine who joined Black Hills was winemaker early in 2019.

He had not made any of the Carménère vintages we tasted. The wines were made initially by Senka Tennant, the founding winemaker at Black Hills, and later by Graham Pierce who succeeded her in 2008. (Subsequently, he has moved to Time Estate Winery.)

Ross’s first Carménère vintage ever was 2019. He is, in fact, a recent Carménère convert after tasting the wines at Black Hills. He was not a fan of the varietal before that. On a recent MW examination, he was asked to name two grape varietals he would banish from the earth. He named Torrontes, Argentina’s ubiquitous grapey white, and Carménère, because he does not like the plump, alcoholic style often produced in Chile.

The varietal was saved from near extinction in Chile. It is an old Bordeaux varietal that once was widely grown in the Médoc. Wine Grapes, the massive and authoritative book by Jancis Robinson (and two colleagues) has an extensive entry on the grape’s history. It was “largely abandoned in Bordeaux after the phylloxera invasion of the 1870s because of its poor fruit set and consequently unreliable yields,” the book says. “There were just 21 hectares in France in 2008.”

Carménère vines were planted in Chile in the mid-nineteenth century from vines that has come from France before phylloxera invaded the French vineyards. Chile is believed still to be free of phylloxera, although viticulturists today would know how to deal with it.

The Carménère vines in Chile were interplanted with other varietals, primarily Merlot. The variety did better there than in France because the growing season is longer and drier than in Bordeaux. Robinson et al says Chilean growers recognized that Carménère was different from Merlot and they called it Merlot Chileno.

In the early 1990s, a French ampelographer identified Merlot Chileno as Carménère. This was confirmed by DNA analysis and in 1998, authorities in Chile recognized the variety officially as Carménère.

Black Hills planted Carménère in 2001 at the suggestion of Rusty Figgins, the Washington state consultant who worked with Senka Tennant during the early Black Hills vintages. Carménère was just being planted in Washington at the time. Black Hills had a three-quarter-acre unplanted block in its vineyard. Rusty had the winery plant Carménère as an additional blending component for Nota Bene, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend.

“We harvested the first grapes in 2005,” Glenn Fawcett (left) told the tasting in June. “There were just two barrels, 50 cases. It was intended to go into Nota Bene but when Senka and the team were doing barrel samples, they concluded that would be a mistake because the wine was so distinct. So they decided to release it as a single varietal.”

Black Hills no long has any bottles of that debut Carménère in its library. The vertical tasting began with the 2006 vintage.

“The Carménère you are tasting reflects our terroir,” Glenn said. “We have had winemakers from Chile taste it. [They commented] it is distinct from Carménère from other regions. I think it is because of the sand here; because of the sunlight we have; because of our hot days and cool evenings. That develops a different flavour profile.”

The Jancis Robinson book also noted that the varietal’s flavour differences reflects vintage conditions. “If the grapes are harvested before they are fully ripe, wines have strong capsicum and herbaceous flavours,” the authors write. “These turn into red berry and sometimes black pepper and tomato when the berries are just ripe, and then at full maturity blackberry and blueberry with overtones of chocolate and coffee and soy sauce, although the variety also tends to lose acidity at this stage.”

All of these characters were reflected in the various Black Hills vintages, except for low acidity. Okanagan Carménère always has bright and refreshing acidity because the season here is not long enough for the fruit to get overripe. The fresh flavours, together with the moderate alcohol levels – between 12% and 13.5% - are the reasons that Ross Wise changed his mind about banishing the varietal.

“Carménère used to be really popular in Bordeaux and now it is not,” Ross said. “They did not replant it because it is a really low-cropping variety and they couldn’t make much money with it. But the good thing about really low-cropping vines is they have much more power and concentration. From a winemaker perspective, they are fantastic. From a business perspective, it is harder to justify. But I am a winemaker, so that’s fine.”

As the demand for its Carménère has grown, Black Hills has increased its plantings – moderately. In 2008, 2 ½ acres of Chardonnay was grafted over to Carménère. Two more acres were planted in 2012, and about 2 ½ acres more in 2016.

“If people wanted more Carménère, we needed to grow more, even if it didn’t make economic sense,” Glenn said.

Not that Black Hills loses money on the wine. The 2017 vintage, the most recent release, was $60 a bottle. A wine club exclusive, it is sold out.

The surprise to me is how well Carménère ages. Even the 2006 vintage, while obviously mature, was not over the hill. This is an amazing varietal.

“We are not getting too much fresh fruit any more,” Ross said on tasting the 2006. “We are getting a lot of spice characters, a lot of earthiness. This is a really evolved wine. You are getting more of the dry fruits. Kind of plummy. Silky, elegant tannins; it sits soft on the palate. I think it is drinking at its peak now but that it will hold on for another two or three years. It’s in a really good place to drink.”

Here are notes on the 12 vintages. The wines all scored between 91 and 95. Note how the harvest dates and the alcohols vary.

Black Hills Carménère 2006Harvested October 30, 2006. Alcohol 13.4%. This is now a savoury wine with flavours of plum and black cherry.

Black Hills Carménère 2007
Harvested October 29. Alcohol 13%. This wine shows aromas of plum and fig. On the palate, the wine has red berry flavours including a touch of raspberry, mingled with herbal notes.

Black Hills Carménère 2008
Harvested October 20-30. Alcohol 13%. The aromas are intense, with notes of dark fruit mingled with herbs. The wine has flavours of cherry and raspberry with pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2009
October 13. Alcohol 12.2%. Ross Wise suggested this wine reminded him a bit of Pinot Noir, with its lean texture and bright berry aromas and flavours.

Black Hills Carménère 2010
October 27. Alcohol 12.5%. This wine begins with aromas of blackberries and herbs leading to flavours of spicy oak, red cherry and jalapeño peppers.

Black Hills Carménère 2011
November 1. Alcohol 12.2%. This was a notoriously cool season in the Okanagan, which is why the grapes were allowed to hang to November. Yet this proved to be one of best wines in the vertical. It has a peppery aroma and flavours of cassis, blueberry and raspberry. The texture is firm.

Black Hills Carménère 2012
October 23, Alcohol 12.2%. Ripe and elegant, this wine’s silky tannins give it a fullness on the palate. It has aromas and flavours of blueberry and raspberry mingled with pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2013
Harvested October 27. Alcohol 12.2%. This wine of sage, herbs and white pepper mingled with berry notes. On the palate there are flavours of cherry, raspberry and pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2014
Harvested September 30. Alcohol 12.9%. I scored this 95 points, my top wine in the vertical. It benefitted from one of the best growing seasons ever in the Okanagan. It has aromas and flavours of spice, cedar, cherries and other dark fruits. This is a complex wine and one that will age well.

Black Hills Carménère 2015
Harvested October 10. Alcohol 13%. This was a hot Okanagan vintage but Black Hills picked the fruit before the acid dropped. This is a wine with flavours of black cherry, fig, red currant and chocolate. The spice and pepper aromas recall menthol.

Black Hills Carménère 2016
Harvested October 18. Alcohol 12.1%. This wine begins with a great whiff of pepper and red liquorice, leading to flavours of black cherry, raspberry and cranberry.

Black Hills Carménère 2017
Harvested October 8 and 9. Alcohol 13%. This is a youthfully aromatic wine with aromas of red fruit and pepper, leading to savoury, dark fruit flavours. The wine has the potential to develop into one of the best over the next decade.  


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