Culpeper Times • May 12-18, 2016
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The Jurassic Grape: Carmenere’s comeback THE WINE NERD
Everyone loves a good comeback Jim Hollingshead story. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa facing off with Mr T. or Robin Hood winning back his lands and Maid Marian, there’s something about a hero reclaiming victory after defeat that tugs the heartstrings on an almost primal level. Now imagine the hero waiting more than a century for that victory, and you’ll start to imagine how high the stakes were for an old friend of mine named Carmenere. You’re probably familiar with Bordeaux. It’s the part of the globe that has been possibly the most influential on the whole history of wine. You may even know that there are only five grapes that red Bordeaux may be made with: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. What you probably don’t know is that there was originally a number six: Carmenere. The crucial part of any comeback story is the hero’s fall from grace. For hundreds of years, Carmenere had it all. It was born as a hybrid of Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, a prince in the kingdom of Bordeaux. There it thrived, producing wines rich in dark fruit and spice. For much of history it dominated Bordeaux winemaking. But, like the arrogance of King Lear, it was difficult to work with. The cool, wet climate made it groan and grumble(and again with the Lear reference, I picture him ranting at the storm). Then, in true Shakespearean fashion, came the betrayal- Carmenere was destroyed at the hands of Phylloxera, an incredibly small insect that feasts on the roots of vines. During the 1860s, much of Europe was stripped bare of vines. After this decimation, Carmenere disappeared. In the frantic replanting throughout much of Europe, our hero
was simply too difficult to work with to inspire much attention. Bordeaux (and the rest of the world) became enamored with Carmenere’s bastard half-brother, Cabernet Sauvignon. Born of a dalliance between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, this new character slipped out of the shadows to steal the crown- and the rest is history. Cabernet has long been the most widely planted grape in the world, and Carmenere was forgotten. Then, in the 1990s, a dark horse got noticed in Chile. Some winegrowers noticed that their particular strain of Merlot was remarkably unusual, and began testing it. With the advent of Genetics, it was soon discovered to be the long-lost king in exile: Carmenere! It is believed to have been mislabelled as Merlot when shipped from France in the 1850s. Chile’s warm climate made it thrive as never before, and it has since become the National Grape and achieved international acclaim. This rebirth earned our hero a fantastic nickname: “The Jurassic Park Grape.” My favorite Chilean Carmeneres are smoky, with plenty of spice, leather, and blueberry/blackberry fruitiness. It’s also a good wine when you don’t want to break the bank- great ones will often sell in the teens and twenties. When eating out, I often look for a Carmenere to go with my steak, rather than dropping the cash on a big-name California Cab (it’s my jab at the half-brother who stole the throne). Big meats, especially smoked or grilled, dance beautifully with the wine. Carmenere has one of the most enthralling stories in the wine world. It means a great deal to me, as it taught me that great wine is more than a faceless liquid in a bottle, but rather an unending tale that stretches back throughout human civilization. Here we find the best kind of tragedy: a tale of redemption. This ‘King Lear’ crawled through devastating loss only to better himself and to claim a new, brighter kingdom. It was this story that first truly awakened my love of wine, and I
Chilean Carmenere grapes produce wine with robust flavor and hints of blueberry/blackberry fruitiness. hope that it may speak as earnestly to you. You can find Carmenere all over Davis Street! Sit down for a glass at the Piedmont Steakhouse, or grab a bottle for home at Vinosity or the Culpeper Cheese Company.
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Jim Hollingshead is a rabid oenophile who was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Texas, and has fallen in love with the rolling hills of Virginia. He is The Wine Nerd at the Culpeper Cheese Company, and occasionally pretends to have other interests. You can reach him at 540-8274757 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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