Carménère for the Thanksgiving table

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

For many wine enthusiasts, picking wine for the holiday table is one of utmost importance. Once the meat, stuffing, potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie are prepared, the question is what to drink with the meal.

Classic choices for red wines are pinot noir, Beaujolais or grenache, but as Thanksgiving approaches, perhaps the perfect wine for your holiday dinner should be carménère. In fact, Nov. 24 also marks International Carménère Day honoring the 22nd anniversary of the rebirth of the grape.

Carménère is a grape variety that was one of the original blending grapes in Bordeaux, France. Thanks to phylloxera in the late 1800s, the vineyards were destroyed and it was thought that the grape was extinct.

Meanwhile, Chile had transported some grapes from France and was busily producing an herbaceous red wine that they called “Chilean merlot.” Then 22 years ago, in 1994, on Thanksgiving, a French DNA specialist identified the Chilean merlot as the rare Bordeaux grape carménère. With the understanding of the true identity of the grape, the Chileans readjusted their treatment of the grape. Instead of picking early, as they had been doing, they let the grape reach ripeness by harvesting late.

Carménère is a medium-bodied red wine that produces a silky, spicy wine with notes of sour cherry, raspberry, blackberry, peppercorn and smokiness. In some ways, it is similar to the grape it used to be mistaken for, merlot. Carménère has high acidity and low tannins, which makes it a great wine to pair with food such as smoked, grilled or roasted meats, turkey, chicken, pork, lamb, beef and veal, as well as strong, hard cheeses.

The majority of carménère comes from within the Central Valley of Chile, from Maipo Valley, Cachapoal Valley, Colchagua Valley and Rapel Valley and ranges in price. Here are two that I tasted:

— Torres M Santa Digna Reserva Carménère, Central Valley 2012 ($9)

Miguel Torres Chile was founded in 1979 by the Torres family, who had produced wine in Spain for more than a century. This cherry-red wine has aromas of red and black fruit and balsamic, with a touch of eucalyptus. On the palate, the notes of leather and spice will pair with veal and beef dishes.

— Montes Purple Angel Carménère, Colchagua Valley 2013($25)

Montes was started in 1987 by Aurelio Montes, Douglas Murray, Alfredo Vidaurre and Pedro Grand who wanted to make “first growth” quality wines in Chile. The carménère, which has 8 percent petit verdot added for acidity, comes from vineyards in the Marchigue and Apalta areas of the Colchagua Valley where the soils are of granite origin. The wine is a deep red with aromas of ripe red and black fruit, sweet spices, dark chocolate and vanilla. On the palate, the wine has good structure with rounded tannins that will pair beautifully with red meat, lamb chops, fowl and pork ribs.

While carménère is predominantly grown in Chile, the small amounts of the grape can also be found planted in California, Washington’s Walla Walla and in the Veneto region of Italy. In Italy, as in Chile, carménère was first introduced in the 19th century by emigrants from France but was thought of as cabernet franc. In the 1990s, it was discovered to be carménère.

In Italy, carménère can be found in the hills of the Colli Berici, approximately 10 miles from Soave. It is an area where Bordeaux varieties were first planted in Italy.

Stefano Inama, of Inama Winery, first came upon carménère when purchasing his vineyards in the Colli Berici in 1997. His research into the grape led him to its origins, which can be traced to the nearby Dalmatian Coast. In Roman times, it was called Carmium. With this history, Inama was inspired to experiment with the grape to find the best expressions and today they own 26 acres of carménère vineyards, the largest vineyard holding of that grape in all of Europe.

— Inama Carménère Più’ Colli Berici DOC, Italy 2013 ($20)

This wine is 70 percent carménère and  30 percent merlot. A vivid ruby color, it has a nose of black cherry, plum, violet, cocoa and soy sauce. On the palate, the tannins are soft while the acidity is fresh and bright. This is the wine to enjoy with salami, grilled pork or fowl.

— 2011 Carmenère Riserva Oratorio di San Lorenzo Colli Berici DOC ($65)

Made with 100 percent carmenere from the best grapes in their vineyard, which is located next to the Oratorio di San Lorenza in Località San Germano dei Berici (Vicenza). The grapes are dried slightly on the vine and then spend 14 days in maceration and fermentation. Aged for 18 months in barrel and then 12 months in bottle, the wine has a concentrated nose of black fruit, cocoa and pepper. It is generous and round on the palate and will pair with grilled meat and mashed potatoes.

— Inama Bradisismo Veneto Rosso IGT, Italy 2013 ($30)

In this wine, 30 percent of carménère is blended with 70 percent cabernet sauvignon resulting in a wine with a deep red color and a nose of red and black fruit, dried cherries and cocoa. It is soft and round on the palate and pairs with barbecue and grilled meats.

As you plan your holiday meal, include a bottle of carménère. You can celebrate Thanksgiving as well as International Carménère Day.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.