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A Changing Carmenère

It takes courage to say “I got it wrong” in public, but that is just what Marcelo Retamal, the talented winemaker at De Martino in Chile, did recently in London. I, along with other members of the Circle of Wine Writers were invited to a vertical tasting of Carmenère from De Martino’s Alto de Piedras Vineyard in the Maipo Valley — 15 vintages altogether, spanning from 1996 to 2010. (The 2000 and 2004 were missing as the entire stock of those two years was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.) The wines provided a wonderful bird’s eye view of the evolution of Chilean winemaking over the last 15 years, with an indication of its future direction. Maybe more important, the tasting highlighted Retamal’s change of direction over the years, with a shift to a lower alcohol, more food-friendly style.

The De Martino family planted its 5.5-hectare (13.5-acre) vineyard of Carmenère in the Maipo Valley in 1992. They thought they were planting Merlot — that is what the vine nursery had sold them — but this was during the time that Chile was discovering that much of its Merlot was really Carmenère. The first vintage was in 1996, and from 1997 on, the vineyard has been farmed organically. Marcelo Retamal has been involved since the beginning, and so it was really fascinating to see the evolution in his winemaking and taste the change in style over the years.

Starting with rauli casks

1996: The harvest began on March 25 and the wine was fermented and aged in old rauli casks — rauli is a native wood that was often used in the early days of Chilean winemaking. The wine was quite light and elegant, with a slight greenness on the palate, and some berry fruit. The alcohol level was a modest 12.3 percent.

Relying on French oak

1997: New French barriques for aging the wine were introduced. Marcelo observed that the perceived wisdom at the time dictated French oak in order to obtain good wine. The harvest was at a similar time and again the wine was fermented in rauli casks, with natural yeast. The maceration period was a little longer, 28 days as opposed to 20 days for the 1996. There was a ripeness and a sweetness on both nose and palate, with a touch of spicy oak, and a slightly green edge on the finish.

Alcohol levels up

1998 and 1999: The new cellar was complete and the wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks. The harvest was later, in the middle of April, and the totality of the wine was aged for 18 months in new French oak. The result was a structured oaky wine. It was ripe and rounded, with tannins and a firm backbone. And there was nothing about it that really said Chile. The 1998 and the 1999 vintages were both called Reserva de Familia. Marcelo explained that they were looking to create an expensive Carmenère, which would be given the full treatment of winemaking. Like the 1997, the 1998 was fermented in stainless steel, and spent 18 months in new French oak. The harvest date was April 22, a full month later than the 1996 and 1997. And the result was a ripe oaky wine, with some rich cedary fruit and supple tannins. The alcohol level was up to 14.1 percent, the result of a hotter summer. However, alcohol levels in excess of 14 percent were about to become the norm.

The family reserve label abandoned

2001: Again, the alcohol level reached 14.1 percent. At this point, the family reserve label was abandoned with the aim of making a slightly more affordable wine, and so less new French oak was used, with 14 months aging in just 25 percent new French oak. There was sweet, ripe fruit, with firm tannins and a certain freshness on finish.

Going youthful and dense

2002: The harvest took place as late as May 10; selected yeast were used, and the maceration period was 40 days. The alcohol reached 14.6 percent; one-third of the juice was bled; and tartaric acid was added. They did a pre-fermentation cold maceration for the first time. The result was a very concentrated wine, with chocolaty fruit, firm tannins; an edge of acidity; and a sweet finish. It was youthful and dense — and over-extracted. I wondered how much of it I would actually be able to drink, suspecting that my taste buds would tire after less than a glass.

A minty hint on the finish

2003: The fermentation period was particularly long, 26 days, as opposed to 18 days in 2002, and the total maceration period was 38 days. The alcohol level reached 14.8 percent and all the wine spent 16 months in new French barriques. Again the vat was bled — 20 percent, and tartaric acid was added. There was dense chocolaty oak on the nose, and a concentrated palate, with an edge of acidity and tannin, and a minty hint on the finish.

Smoky notes

2005: This vintage was ripe and rounded with smoky notes on the nose, with some ripe berry fruit on the palate. Again, there was that edge of acidity from the addition of tartaric acid. The winemaking was similar to the previous vintage, with a cold maceration before fermentation in order to obtain colour and fruit.

Status quo

2006: Nothing much changed in this year. The harvest was in mid-May, and the winemaking entailed a long maceration, bleeding the vat and the addition of tartaric acid. And the result was another ripe concentrated wine, with some intense, mouth-filling chocolaty flavours.

The new French barrels’ effect

2007: One of the coolest of the recent vintages came in 2007, but still with some ripe vanilla flavors and hints of coconut on the nose, doubtless from the new French barrels. The palate was ripe and fleshy, with some firm tannins.

Time to consider a change

2008: Marcelo began to realize that these wines really did not go well with food. This was another cooler vintage, but nonetheless, the alcohol level reached 14.1 percent after a harvest on May 2. There were 70 percent new French barrels and 10 percent bleeding of the vat. The wine was still pretty solid, ripe and dense, with firm tannins, a minty hint and some fruit underneath all the oak.

A natural yeast

2009: This year began a more serious change. The grapes were picked on April 23 and fermented in stainless steel, this time using natural yeast, with a total maceration of 28 days. Although tartaric acid was added, there was no bleeding of the tanks and the wine was aged for 14 months, 70 percent in new French oak. The alcohol level was 14.4 percent, but the wine suddenly seemed more elegant. There were some lovely berry notes, characteristic of Carmenère, on both nose and palate, with some fleshy texture and layers of fruit. It was altogether much more appealing and food-friendly.

2010: The change of style continued with this vintage. The harvest date was April 22, and again the grapes were fermented in stainless steel with natural yeast. The final alcohol level was a more modest 13.6 percent, and there was no bleeding and no addition of tartaric acid. The wine was aged for just eight months in new French oak, as well as nine months in old barrels. And the change was palpable. The nose was perfumed, with hints of licorice. There was ripe fleshy fruit on the palate, but with more subtle and supple tannins and no hard edge of acidity on the finish. Altogether the wine was much livelier and fresher. It was undoubtedly the star of the tasting, and a very convincing argument for Retamal’s move away from over-extracted, overly oaked wines.

A creative future

2011: They are planning to use untoasted Austrian foudres for aging the wine. The grapes were picked on April 20, with an alcohol level of 13 percent. And the wine will spend two winters in wood before bottling. I can’t wait to taste it.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: De Martino’s Alto de Piedras Vineyard in the Maipo Valley, Chile. Credit: Courtesy of Sebastian De Martino.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.