Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Carmen - New Passion in the Alto Maipo

Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards at Carmen estate in the Alto Jahuel district of the Alto Maipo, Chile (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

No puedes hablar de pasión. Si no lo has probado.
You can’t talk about passion. You have to taste it. – Slogan for Carmen Winery

It’s a natural thought process to focus on what’s new and trendy and overlook an established commodity. The wine media does it all the time, so it may not be a surprise that you don’t hear much about Carmen Winery in Chile, as it was founded in 1850. But you’d be missing out on some gorgeous wines if you didn’t include Carmen in your list of the best Chilean wine estates.

This may be Chile’s oldest wine house, but there have been numerous changes over the past 25 years. The winery was purchased in 1987 by a new ownership group and a new winery was built in 1992 in the Alto Jahuel section of the Alto Maipo, southeast of Santiago. The Alto Maipo is a very different section of the Maipo Valley than the vineyards in the western reaches of the valley, where the more fertile soils yield pleasant, if unexciting wines. The Alto Maipo, with vineyards at elevations above 2000 feet, is an ideal spot for producing full-bodied wines with excellent acidity, as the cool nights at the high elevations assure proper backbone and structure in the wines. “This is the only place in the Maipo to make great Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Carmen chief winemaker Stefano Gandolini.

There are a few dozen estates that produce sumptuous reds here and Carmen is one of the finest. There are several lines of Carmen wines, starting with the classic bottlings in the $8-9 price range which are produced primarily from grapes grown in Chile’s Central Valley. What I’d like to focus on however are the Reserve wines along with the Winemaker’s Reserve wines as well as the Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

I won’t go into every wine here, but among the Reserve wines, three stand out in my mind. The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve (about $15 retail) has nice varietal intensity with flavors of grapefruit and a hint of lime, lively acidity and a long, richly flavored finish. What an ideal choice for ceviche, shrimp or scallops.

The 2006 Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($16) has exotic aromas of menthol and oregano with rich black fruit flavors and notes of tobacco in the finish along with round tannins. This is quite elegant and is a perfect foil for most red meats; if you love South American cuisine, this is heavenly with empanadas!

My favorite Reserve is the Merlot ($16); given how boring most bottlings of Merlot are, this is saying something. The trick here is that the grapes are from Casablanca Valley, a much cooler region than Maipo. This means better acidity, which gives this wine excellent structure, freshness and a clean, bright finish. This is simply a delicious wine with tasty black cherry and red plum flavors and an elegance from start to finish. If only more Merlots were made with this amount of care! Foods for this- you name it! This is an important wine, not only because it’s well made, but because it’s a well-made Merlot for $16. I’d go out and buy several bottles or a case if I were you!

The 2007 Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay, also from Casablanca Valley, has Meursault-like qualities about it, with its rich fruit and notable spice. The flavors are quite attractive – pear, pineapple and quince and there’s just the right amount of oak along with a nice touch of minerality in the finish. This has another 2-3 years of life ahead of it and it’s a fine value at $25.

The 2005 Winemaker’s Reserve Red is a gorgeous blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah that is truly something special. Loaded with layers of fruit and boasting flavors of black plum, cassis and milk chocolate, this sports a lengthy finish with elegant tannins and beautiful structure. I see this wine aging well for as long as 12-15 years, making the $45 price tag a steal. How good this wine is with roast pork or most game dishes!

Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Finally there is the 2005 Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon produced from a single vineyard at the Alto Jahuel estate. This vineyard was planted in 1953; the wine displays the intensity and breeding of these old vines along with wonderful suppleness and structure. This is a powerful wine, yet at the same time beautifully balanced with an extremely long finish. It’s excellent now and may just turn out to be outstanding in 12-15 years; like any red wine of this caliber and strength, this needs time to settle down. The price is approximately $70 a bottle, which puts it on an equivalent level with the best red wines of the Alto Maipo.

So from an old, established winery, beautiful new wines. Congratulations to head winemaker Stefano Gandolini and the other member of his winemaking team, Sebastián Labbé and Alejandra Vallejo for their outstanding work!

Alejandra Vallejo, one of the winemakers at Carmen (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

1 comment:

  1. Maipo Alto (or Alto Maipo, both are used) has long been one of the stars of Chilean terroir, especially for elegant reds, such as those made by Carmen, which was also one of the leaders in organic viticulture in Chile.