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The Lost Grape of Bordeaux

The same Phylloxera root louse that forced the replanting of most of California's vine root stock in the 1980s first destroyed the great French vineyards of Bordeaux in the 1880s. When they replanted, the six great red grapes of Bordeaux became five. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot remained, but the slow-ripening, low-yield Carmenère grape fell from favor and all but disappeared from France.

Back up 30 years.... Chile's wine industry was born in the 1850s with cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc imported from Bordeaux before the Phylloxera epidemic. Even today, Chile still has the only true pre-Phylloxera Bordeaux root stock still in existence.

Now, flash forward 140 years.... Chilean winemakers had wondered for years why some of their Merlot was slow to mature and had lower yields and a distinctive flavor profile. In the early 1990s they found out why — because it wasn't Merlot at all, it was Carmenère! And it was everywhere... it had not only been planted as separate vineyards, but in many cases it was mixed in field blends with the Merlot — which explained Chile's reputation in the 1980s for producing lots of green and vegetal Merlots, since Carmenère ripens much more slowly than Merlot and would not be ready at the same time as the Merlot. The first reaction of the Chilean winemakers to this revelation was to get the government regulators to declare that Carmenère could be bottled as Merlot (it is kind of comforting to know that Government is pretty much the same all around the world — he who has the best lobbyists gets to make the laws). Later, reason prevailed and Carmenère is now being bottled as single varietal and once again being used in Bordeaux-style blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot by many of Chile's best winemakers.