Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Solid One-Two Punch from Carmen

I've thoroughly enjoyed the wines of Carmen, Chile's oldest wine producing company, since I was first introduced to them a little more than a decade ago. From the medium-priced riserva line of wines to the premium Gold Label offerings, this winery has always delivered the goods.

I've recently tried the new releases from Carmen, which have seen a new label design for the Gran Riserva wines as well as a new national importer, Trinchero Wine Estates from California. There are six wines in the Gran Riserva line, which represent Carmen's dedication to the various terriors of Chile. Thus the Chardonnay is made from grapes sourced from Casablanca Valley, while the Sauvignon Blanc is from the cool Leyda Valley, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The Carmenere comes from estate vineyards in Colchagua Valley, a few hours south of Santiago, while the other reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Sirah) are all sourced from Carmen's beautiful hillside estate in the Alto Maipo, about a 45-minute drive southeast of Santiago.

My two favorite wines in the Gran Riserva lineup are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot, both from the 2009 vintage. Of course, the Alto Maipo is famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, as the wines here have good richness, lovely varietal character as well as soft tannins, which gives them an immediate drinkability. This Cabernet Sauvignon has good persistence and balance and along with the textbook varietal flavors of blackcurrant and red cherry, there are also notes of tobacco and dark chocolate.

The Merlot is the real surprise, however. Merlot gets a lot of bad publicity these days for various reasons, but if more were made like this, you'd read a lot more positive notices for the grape variety. Black cherry and black plum fruit dominate this wine and the tannins are polished as you might expect. This is very drinkable now and will be a fine partner for most red meats - especially lamb - for the next 2-3 years. Both of these wines are $15 retail (all the Gran Riserva wines sell at the same price) and these two reds in particular are excellent values.

Carmen has also released the 2007 vintage of their top red, the Gold Label Cabernet Sauvignon. I've been enjoying releases of this wine for the past six or seven vintages and have rated this wine as either excellent or outstanding every year. The wine is made from a beautifully sited vineyard that was planted in 1957; thus this 2007 release is from 50-year old fruit! Yields are low, the fruit is deeply concentrated on the palate and there is excellent persistence. As you might imagine, a wine this rich and young needs a bit of time in the bottle; I enjoyed this for dinner the other night at Al Dente restaurant in Chicago with a pork chop with poblano and red peppers, portobello mushroom and chipotle tomato coulis and as you might imagine, it was a heavenly pairing! The wine definitely needs at least 60-90 minutes of breathing time for enjoyment for dinner tonight; however the wine is just an infant and will improve for another 10-12 years, when it will be at its best.

The price on this gorgeous Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Carmen is $50. I can guarantee you that a Cabernet Sauvignon made from 50-year old vineyards in Napa Valley would cost you at least $75 and probably more like $100 or $125 a bottle. This is another excellent value.

Here's to the consistency of Carmen wines, be it at $15 or $50 a bottle. This remains one of Chile's finest producers, I'm quite pleased to say!

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