Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Monday, April 26, 2021
Black Hills releases new Carménère
Photo: Winemaker Ross Wise MW
Black Hills was the first winery to plant Carménère in the Okanagan. It remains one of three or four wineries growing this venerable Bordeaux red varietal. The wine is virtually exclusive to the Black Hills wine club, where it has acquired a cult following, deservedly so.
The varietal was saved from near extinction in Chile. It 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.
Ross Wise MW, who joined Black Hills as winemaker in 2019, had never made Carménère before in his winemaking career. He was not a fan of the varietal before that. On his Master of Wine 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. He became a Carménère convert after tasting the wines at Black Hills.
Several years ago, Black Hills treated its wine club members to a vertical tasting of every vintage of its Carménère, except the first (there is none in the winery’s library now). The style here is neither plump, nor alcoholic. The alcohol in the finished wine hovers around 12%.
“Carménère used to be really popular in Bordeaux and now it is not,” Ross told the audience at the vertical tasting. “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.”
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.
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.
The winery’s current releases include a 2018 Carménère and a 2019 Chardonnay. Here are notes on the wines.
b>Black Hills Chardonnay 2019 ($29.90 for 1,217 cases). This is a luscious wine with buttery aromas mingled with citrus. The palate is packed with fruit flavours – peach and apple – mingled delicately with vanilla and butter. 91.
Black Hills Carménère 2018 ($59.99 for 605 cases). The wine begins with aromas of black pepper, cherry and red licorice. On the palate, there are flavours of red berry fruits mingled with pepper, with a lingering earthy finish. 92.