Near the end of the night, after Suzanne and Kelleigh had left, I swirled the contents of my glass and inhaled a gulp of fresh lilac. Lilac? I said to Cathy, I don’t remember sensing that! And because I’d forgotten which of the five Carmeneres I was drinking, we sniffed through the bottles and soon found that the scent was coming from Portal del Alto Gran Reserva, 2005, the exact same wine that Cathy had earlier poured from her glass. How could that be? What had been elected the least favorite wine of the night had completely transformed before our eyes after aerating for a few hours, leading us to conclude that if one is patient, she can expect to reap great rewards at blue-light prices, from a bottle of Carmenere.
Discovered in Chile, in 1994, Carmenere is considered the lost grape of Bordeaux. Prior to the Phylloxera plague that swept across Europe in 1867, Carmenere was widely cultivated in Médoc. Rendered “extinct” by the plague, Carmenere was inadvertently being preserved and mistaken for Merlot in Chile, where it had been flourishing for over 150 years.
Last night we sampled five, the first of which had been decanted for an hour and a half–Terra Noble Grand Reserva, 2007, Maule Valley ($15 at Astor Wines). With a bouquet of coffee, dark berries, and spice, the Terra Noble has a silky texture with soft tannins, and a slightly bitter vegetal finish that lingered long. When paired with Asiago, the wine was dulled, losing its complexity and finishing bite. Gorgonzola, on the other hand, brightened the wine’s notes, complimenting without altering–a perfect match.
Second in the glass, Root:1 Colchaqua Valley, 2007 ($11.99), also showed blueberry and black fruit, with a slight perfumed nose. Herbaceous, earthy, and spicy, with medium acidity and medium tannins, Root:1 has a similar finish to the Terra Noble, vegetal with cilantro notes.
Next up was our surprise of the night–Portal del Alto Gran Reserva, Maule Valley, 2005. Initially showing a whiff of chlorine on the nose, this Carmenere opened just a crack quickly, offering blueberry, cherry, musty undergrowth, and wooden spice. With a short finish, it was more herbaceous on the nose than the others, and was so incongruous that Cathy, who once drank that godawful Sparkling Shiraz, dumped her glass. After sitting open for a few hours…voila! Lilacs.
Darker in color than the others, Arboleda DO Valle de Colchagua, 2007 ($17) demonstrated the most complex nose with aromas of tobacco, earth, violet, dark fruit, and cocoa. Earthy on the palate with velvety tannins, Arboleda has a spicy finish that was reduced when paired with Gorgonzola, but complimented by asparagus and hummus. We found this wine to be the jammiest of the five, but not unpleasant. Until we discovered lilacs, this was our favorite wine of the night.
Lastly, we drank Anakena Rapel Valley, 2006 ($17 or $18). With the least amount of time to breathe, this Carmenere initially demonstrated barnyard on the nose, alongside a bit of skunk and smoke. After airing, it offered overripe vegetables/compost and tobacco, along with dark fruit (berries and plum) and spice. Incredibly soft in texture, it was the smoothest wine of the night, all of which left us to conclude, that if you have a slight budget and time to spare, decant your Carmenere, let it breathe, and enjoy!