Wine on Wednesdays – The Lost Grape of Bordeaux

Once upon a time, in the lush green wine growing regions of Bordeaux, there lived a grape named Carmenere. Many people said it was the grandfather of the mighty Cabernet Sauvignon grape, from which many future celebrated wines from Bordeaux would be made.

For centuries, the grape grew happily in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, and in Graves, another famous French wine region, and a few other places. In fact, Carmenere was growing in these famous wine growing regions of France even before there was a France, as evidenced by the praise it received from Pliny the Elder, chronicler of the Roman gladiators who conquered Gaul, now modern day France.

Carmenere was enjoyed and celebrated by wine lovers for hundreds and hundreds of years, and was considered on par with the cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes as one of the finest wine making grapes in the world.

Then, in 1867, something terrible happened.

A plague of phylloxera, also known as the antarctic lotus fly, swarmed the Bordeaux region, as well of much of France itself, leaving a swath of destruction in every vineyard it touched. Nearly all of France’s successful wine industry was destroyed, but the carmenere grape was completely wiped out.

In the wake of the plague, carmenere was declared extinct, and never again would anyone be able to enjoy its distinctive flavor, which had been described as a milder, smoky, spicy, and berry-like cabernet sauvignon.

But flash forward to 1994, where Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot, of the University of Montpelier’s department of oneology was conducting a study of Merlot Peumal, a grape grown in Chile’s Peumal valley that was believed to be a clone of the merlot grape.

Except it wasn’t.

Professor Borsiquot determined that Merlot Peumal was actually the long-lost carmenere grape. Apparently, in the 1850s — long before the phylloxera plague decimated her vineyards — French winemakers exported carmenere plants to Chile’s fledgling wine industry, believing them to be merlot vines. For more than 140 years, Chilean winemakers cultivated carmenere under the mistaken impression that it was merlot.

Four years after its re-discovery, in 1998 the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially declared carmenere to be its own distrinct varietal and the wine is now produced and exported worldwide by hundreds of Chilean vineyards. It is also being cultivated, on a much smaller scale, in wineries in California and Australia.

Meanwhile, back in France, Bordeaux has moved on and produces some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world. But in recent years, a few vineyards have begun plantng a few acres of camenere vines among their famed cabernet sauvignon vines, and there is talk of expanding these plantings and re-weaving the ancient grape into the region’s rich wine tapestry.

This carmenere — Found Object, from Chile — is one of dozens of delicious, affordable Chilean carmeneres widely available in the US. It cost $7.99/bottle, which is the exact limit of my self-imposed maximum cost per bottle.

This story of the lost grape of Bordeaux concludes with a happy ending, with this lush and fragrant carmenere swirling around in my glass, once again having been discovered and celebrated as one of the world’s finest varietals.

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