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September 24, 2022

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Deliciously funky Chilean reds for BBQ

The end of summer in many parts of the world and in some regions of China means it barbecue time. Many gourmets consider it an essential late summer right of passage, but we explore the synergistic relationship between BBQ and wines let’s step back into the fascinating history of meats and other yummies over fire.

Food historians have long debated the origin of barbeque but mankind has been using fire to cook since early humans first gained the ability to control the use of fire. Archeologists hotly debate the date of this history changing moment with published papers citing dates as recently as 200,000 years ago and others claiming many first gained control over fire as far back as 1.7 million years ago.

Though BBQ feasts around the world often incorporate many ingredients including seafood and vegetables, in deference to the probable origin of the word I shall focus my BBQ and wine suggestions on meats and red wines.

The first rule in picking red wines for BBQ meals is to pick bold and assertive wines. So many of the BBQ meats are marinated, spiced or smoked, all giving them heartier flavors that may overwhelm and deconstruct more subtle and understated wines. Instead you should pick wines that have at least 13 percent alcohol and fruit-forward styles with high extract and abundant soft tannins.

It’s also nice to have wines that have somewhat spicy natures. These styles of wines have the requisite power and broad food pairing spectrum to match with the varying flavors, textures and aromas of BBQ meals. The essence of a BBQ meal is fun and casual so the wines you choose should also be both approachable and affordable. One adopted Chilean wine variety admirably achieves all these qualities.

Sometimes referred to as Bordeaux’s sixth grape, the Carmenere despite being nearly extinct in Bordeaux has found a perfect new home in the dry hillside vineyards of Chile where the grape makes some of the New World’s most intriguing red wines. Along with a pleasingly funky aromas and flavors the grape boasts an intriguing story.

Many in the wine world have postulated that like the Cabernet family of grapes, Carmenere is an ancestor of the legendary Biturica. This linage link to ancient Roman may not be as direct as we once speculated as the most recent DNA work indicates that Carmenere is actually the offspring of the Cabernet Franc and the now nearly extinct Gros Cabernet grapes.

We know that Carmenere played an important role in the Bordeaux blends until the 19th century when it nearly disappeared. Traditionally, the grape contributed depth of color and attractive herbal and gamy qualities that nicely complemented the other Bordeaux varieties.

The late 19th century phylloxera outbreak devastated the vines of Bordeaux. After a few years winemakers discovered a technique of grafting the French vines onto American rootstock that was resistant to the pest. This solution worked perfectly well with the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the other Bordeaux grapes, but not with Carmenere.

The grape also ripens relatively late and unevenly and is prone to high levels of pyrazine content that result in unpleasant vegetal sensations. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that this niggling variety all but disappeared from the Bordeaux landscape. Fortunately it found better fortunes across the seas.

The Chilean wine industry is among the oldest in the New World dating back to 1554 when Diego Garcia de Caceres first planted vines in Santiago. When Carmenere first arrived in Chile is unknown but it was almost certainly centuries ago when it was field planted with other red grape varieties. For most of this time Carmenere remained mostly unrecognized.

In 1994, Frenchman Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier’s school of Oenology made a startling discovery. This inquisitive ampelographer scientifically established that approximately half of all Chilean Merlot vines were actually Carmenere. This is understandable when you realize that the two grapes look practically the same.

It turns out that the same qualities that made it a tricky grape for Bordeaux winemakers made it nearly ideal for their Chilean counterparts. The consistently long, hot and dry growing seasons of Chile are ideal for Carmenere. Today Carmenere is well-represented in many of Chile’s most famous wine regions including Colchagua Valley, Rapel Valley and Maipo Valley. The latter region in particular makes many of Chile’s best Carmenere wines.

Maipo Valley

South of the capital Santiago, Maipo Valley is the heartland of Chilean red wines. The first vines were planted in the 16th century and since then the region has produced many of Chile’s most prestigious wines. Some even refer to it as the Bordeaux of Chile.

After Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere is the second most planted variety in the Maipo Valley. Typically, Carmenere wines from the region exhibit a dark black-red color with intriguing aromas and flavors of ripe red and black fruit, chocolate, bell pepper and tobacco with gentle tannins. Depending on the choice and use of oak, the wines range from toasty and creamy to spicy and smoky.

Many of the better Maipo Carmenere wines also have a pleasant gamy quality. Importantly, the generous soft tannins in Carmenere wines also helping digest the fatty and often greasy meats we love to BBQ.

Recommended Chilean producers of Carmenere with wines available in Shanghai include Chocalan, Lapostolle, Casa Amada and Caliterra. The exciting funkiness of many Carmenere wines mean they require at least 30 minutes to breath and are best served about 16 degrees Celsius. Vintage variation in the Maipo Valley is slight and most recent vintages have been good to excellent.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Anteroom, 1222 Changle Rd, 6248-8985

Chocalan Maipo Valley Gran Reserva Carmenere

Chocalan Maipo Valley Reserva Carmenere

China Wine & Spirits, RM 702, No. 1, Lane 1136, Xinzha Rd, 6087-1811

Casa Amada Reserva Carmenere

Casa Amada Gran Reserva Carmenere (website)

Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Apalta Vineyard Carmenere


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