Indeed, the title says it clearly and no, it’s not a joke. It is, however, a bit of a history lesson in the premium wine industry. Some of you may be sitting there saying “Yeah right, Merlot is Merlot, how can it be anything else?”. Well, read on dear Watson, because I’m about to take you on a short trip through history and across the globe.
Around 300 years ago, Carmenere was a well-known, though not necessarily a well-loved variety of grapes grown in the French countryside. These grapes were grown alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, though they ripened much later than either of their cousins and did not produce matching yields.
Thin-skinned like Merlot grapes, these grapes required care and during heavily wet seasons they would run the same risks when it came to disease. This unfortunate fact would eventually cause their near demise in France when acres of grapes from all varieties were struck with a condition called coulure.
However, before we explain this near destruction, let’s snap to Chile, a hot spot during the mid-1800s, when wineries were beginning to take a strong hold on the landscape.
Chilean wineries sought to innovate. Having learned their trade from the French, they held high standards for their grapes and wanted to try new varieties. After procuring Carmenere vines from France, they planted them alongside their Merlot vines.
Soon Chilean vineyards were bursting with both varieties, allowing the wineries to begin trying new ideas that would later result in the Chilean Merlot we know today. What helped them to achieve this is the decidedly low amount of rainfall they experience throughout their growing season.
Both Carmenere and Merlot grapes are thin-skinned and susceptible to wet weather diseases such as coulure, which strike many areas of the globe such as South Florida. With a lack of rainfall, these varieties were able to thrive in Chile with minimal tending. This has, in effect, preserved the Carmenere strain, as it was nearly destroyed entirely in France, where we are now headed back to.
When France’s vineyards were struck by phylloxera, acres of Merlot and Carmenere vines were lost. The more robust varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon were better able to survive with their thicker skins, but even parts of those vines were lost to the devastating disease.
As vineyards across the country began the process of replanting, they simply discarded Carmenere from the list, holding onto small pockets of this variety instead. As Carmenere did not produce as large a yield, they opted to fill the fields with the more popular and yield-producing Merlot vines.
As years passed, Carmenere was all but forgotten in the wine industry until recently when the industry saw a boom in sales worldwide. Suddenly there was a Chilean Merlot on the market. This wine possessed an unusual flavor that wine connoisseurs could not place and questions were raised as to what the Chilean vineyards were doing differently.
In 1994, Montpellier’s famous school of Oenology sent Professor Jean- Michel Boursiquit to investigate this interesting wine, in hopes of learning what made the grapes used so special. After careful DNA analysis of several vines, the professor discovered something amazing. There in Chile, untouched by the diseases that had wracked the French countryside, Carmenere vines were growing right next to Merlot!
This discovery was of particular interest to many of France’s famous vineyards, as the entire industry had believed the variety to be lost, but for the few vines they had managed to keep safe. Vineyards are now able to procure the untouched vines which still hold the same standard of the original, in order to bring back what was once thought to be a long-lost varietal type.
And that, dear Watson, is how Chile brought us a Merlot that is not a Merlot at all, but a blend of both Merlot and Carmenere.