Producer: Vina Millaman
Region/Appellation: Maule Valley
Country Hierarchy: Chile
Food Suggestion: Beef and Venison
Wine Style: Red – Bold and Structured
Alcohol Content: 14%
Notes: Indicative blend: Predominantly Carmenere with Cabernet Sauvignon
Maule Valley Wine
Maule Valley is the largest wine-producing region in Chile other than the Central Valley, of which it is a part. It has 75,000 acres (30,000ha) under vine, and has traditionally been associated with quantity rather than quality. But this is rapidly changing – the bulk-producing Pais vine is gradually being replaced with more international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere, and careful winemaking practices are being employed to make some world-class red wines from old-vine Carignan.
The Central Valley itself runs between the Andes and the Coastal Mountains from the Chilean capital of Santiago in the north to the up-and-coming region of Bio Bio in the south. The Maule Valley stretches for around 60 miles (100km), and the center of its wine production lies 180 miles (290km) south of Santiago at a latitude of 35°S. Maule is further south than the Central Valley’s star regions of Maipo and Colchagua. The large amount of land covered by the Maule Valley DO (Denominación de Origen) means there is a multitude of terroirs, from low-lying river valleys to Andean hillsides.
The coat of arms of Maule
Maule Valley was one of the first areas in Chile to be planted to vine, and its viticultural history stretches back to the start of colonisation by the Spanish. The region has long been one of Chile’s most successful bulk-production wine districts, as evidenced by the large amount of Pais still found planted here. It has only been in the past 20 years that Maule vignerons have made a move toward quality, pioneered by the Kendall-Jackson empire of California, which set up a winery here in the mid-1990s.
Despite this push toward modernity, some of Maule’s better throwbacks have survived – the region is fast becoming known for some 70-year-old Carignan vines that are being used to produce soft, earthy red wines with rich plum and black-fruit characters.
One of the more southern of Chile’s wine-growing areas, Maule is slightly cooler than its northerly cousins and has higher annual rainfall, most of which occurs during winter. The intensity of the sunlight is high (as it is in much of Chile) and Maule enjoys warm days followed by much colder nights, extending the growing season and leading to a balance of ripeness and acidity in the grapes.
Temperature-moderating effects come from the Maule River, which flows east-west through the region on its way from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. The river provides Maule with its alluvial soil types; these differ considerably throughout the region and include granite, red clay, loam and gravel. The soils are free-draining where the vineyards sit on the slopes of the surrounding hills, and are more fertile and high yielding on the valley floor along the banks of the river. Many of Maule’s vineyards are dry-farmed to increase the intensity of the grapes – a vine that is starved of water will produce lower yields of highly concentrated grapes.
Viticultural know-how and the Chilean push toward quality winemaking have been a godsend for the Maule Valley wine industry, although the region is unlikely to rival the prestige of Maipo and Colchagua any time soon.
Carmenere is a dark-skinned grape variety originally from the vineyards of Bordeaux, and which has found a particularly suitable home in Chile. A late-ripening variety, Carmenere needs high levels of sunshine and a warm summer to reach its full potential, but in the right environment it can produce fine, deeply colored red wines, with the attractive meaty plumpness of Merlot and the gently herbaceous, cedary notes of Cabernet Sauvignon.
These similarities are not altogether surprising, as Carmenere is considered by some to be the “grandfather” of these Bordeaux varieties. Neither Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot gained much momentum in the region until the mid-18th Century, which raises the question of the varieties used to make Bordelais wines prior to this. Carmenere may provide part of the answer, particularly in the Medoc, where it had a longstanding and successful partnership with Cabernet Franc and where it was one of the most widely planted varieties throughout that region.
This remained the case up until the 1860s, when the phylloxera louse (to which Carmenere vines are particularly susceptible) arrived in Europe from the Americas. Carmenere doesn’t respond as well to grafting as Merlot or Cabernet, so the variety was largely abandoned when phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks were introduced.
Prior to this, in pre-phylloxera 19th-Century Bordeaux, enterprising Chilean vignerons had taken cuttings from the region’s vineyards. However, a high proportion of what they believed to be Merlot, a grape variety in the early days of its fame, turned out to be the similar-looking Carmenere, a long-established variety with waning popularity. It was an unconscious mistake that saved Carmenere from exinction. The variety is now Chile’s premium grape.
The leaves of Merlot and Carmenere vines are so alike that the error was not uncovered until 1994, after DNA research was conducted in Montpellier. (A search for Chilean Carmenere on Wine-Searcher will confirm just how rapidly the variety has taken off since its “discovery”.)
Chile has capitalized on its status as the savior of Carmenere and has incorporated the vine’s memorable story into its famously efficient wine marketing. Montes’ Purple Angel, Concha y Toro’s Carmin de Peumo, and the Vina Errazuriz Kai are all examples of prestige Carmenere wines, all competing for the status of Chile’s first iconic Carmenere.
As news of Carmenere’s success in Chile has spread, the vine has been taken up as a curiosity in several regions around the world. Carmenere grapes are now sanctioned for use in several northern Italian DOCs, such as Friuli Latisana. There, Carmenere is not just autorizzato (authorized) under DOC laws but actually raccomandato (recommended), even in varietal wines. While Italian Carmenere plantings remain scarce, it is significant that the variety was singled out for attention at all.
The variety has also reached New Zealand, where Ransom Wines discovered it in their Matakana vineyards, masquerading as a clone of Cabernet Franc. It arrived there, interestingly enough, from northern Italy but it seems that the variety has found its way to the New World incognito – and was warmly welcomed once discovered.
Back in its erstwhile home in Bordeaux, Carmenere vines are still grown in a small number of estates including Haut-Bailly, Brane-Cantenac and Clerc-Milon, and Chateaux Claribesand Le Puy further east in Sainte Foy and Francs respectively. Whether plantings will increase in response to the variety’s Chilean successes will become clear over the next decade or so.
Synonyms include: Grand Vidure, Biturica.
Food matches for Carmenere include:
- Sausage and bean stew
- Creamy lamb curry
- Barbecued lamb chops
(sources : wine-searcher)