Like many good wine stories this one begins in Bordeaux, which was called Burdigala at the time the story begins in the first century AD. At this time the area was populated by a Celtic tribe called the Bituriges Vivisques who had apparently arrived in the region from Northern France around 300 BC.
At the beginning of the Christian era it is thought the Romans brought vines to the area, possibly from the Basque area of Spain. A variety called Biturica emerges in the early literature. It was thought for a time that Carmenere may actually be Biturica. More recent DNA work suggests that Cabernet Franc, which also originated in Basque Spain (making it a good candidate to be Biturica or a direct desendant of it) is the oldest of the Bordeaux reds we know today. The DNA analysis showed that Carmenere is an offspring of Cabernet Franc, the other parent being an obscure grape called Gros Cabernet.
Carmenere was widespread in Bordeaux up until the depredations of phylloxera from 1867, and along with Cabernet Franc was the variety upon which the reputations of many of the top rated Bordeaux Chateaux were built. Bordeaux wines were in great demand throughout Europe and the European colonies at that time. A measure of the reverence in which both Carmenere and Cabernet Franc were held in the late 18th and 19th Centuries is the fact that both varieties were extensively imported into Northern Italy from the 1820s and Chile from mid-century.
Phylloxera’s impact in Europe was serious by 1870. When Bordeaux was replanted with grafted vines, Carmenere was forsaken. Given the great admiration for the wines it produced, the reasons for this must have been largely due to its behaviour in the vineyard. It was reputedly susceptible to coulure and to a lesser extent downy mildew and it probably ripened later than Cabernet Sauvignon.
However Carmenere lived on in the areas to which it was sent from Bordeaux in the 19th Century – Northern Italy and Chile, although ironically it was not recognized as Carmenere in either country until the 1990s. In Italy it was thought to be Cabernet Franc, and in Chile, Merlot. The Chileans in particular are really making hay with Carmenere now – after they realized what a marketing coup they had, given the high quality of the wine it makes and the fact that the grape is of noble origin but no longer grown in its homeland. Carmenere is rapidly becoming the flagship variety for Chile – symbolic of that country’s red wines as Malbec is to Argentina.
Carmenere apparently never found its way to New Zealand or Australia in the early days. A measure of its obscurity in Australia even today is the fact that it is presently listed as a white grape variety in the Australian Vine Improvement Association’s National register of varieties. Until now it has not been known to be present in any New Zealand vineyards.
But wait, there’s more. In 1988, well known New Zealand viticulturalist Allan Clarke visited North Italy for a viticulture conference, and in addition, as part of his role as the MAF Viticulture Extension Specialist, he was tasked to bring new planting material back. Dr Intrieri at the University of Bologna gave him access to their Nucleus Block, and Allan harvested from single vines, cuttings of a range of varieties, including Cabernet Franc clone F4. These were sent back to MAF Quarantine and released for bulking up in 1991. This was the first named clone of Franc in New Zealand as all the previous material was mass selected. However it was not well received by growers. Allan said: “Many gave up on F4 because it failed to crop initially and in fact I received criticism for even thinking to import such a poor performer!”
Those who stayed with it are now thanking their perseverance. Ransom Wines planted it in 1997, and it produced just a few bunches in years three and four, but by year five, 2002, there was a pickable crop – if still rather small. Robin Ransom said: “We persevered because apart from the small crop, the other early indications were good – the fruit were deeply coloured – black as opposed to the cyan-blue of cabernet sauvignon, and the bunches were small, very open, and very clean, with smallish berries. They ripened about the same time as our other clones of Cabernet Franc”.
“However the similarity to Cabernet Franc ends here – in every other respect: the appearance of the vine, the bunches and the fruit, the vine’s habit in the vineyard, colour of leaves in Autumn, and not least the wine it produces, are so different from our Franc clones (214 and 326), that it is difficult to believe they are the same variety. When Allan Clarke told me a year or so ago that there has in recent years been a good deal of confusion in North Eastern Italy about their Cabernet Franc, and that some of it at least had been found to be Carmenere, the penny dropped. I made various enquiries, only to be informed by the University of Turin that clone F4 is in fact Cabernet Franc, while a clone called F5 has been found to be Carmenere. Was it possible that the cuttings Allan took were from an incorrectly labeled vine, perhaps F5 or something else, and not F4?”
“It seemed to me at that point that the only way of confirming one way or the other would be to DNA test our vines. I sent samples to The Waite Institute at the University of Adelaide, and Dr Nuredin Habili did the analysis. Nuredin said that genetically, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere and our clone F4 were very similar, and he had to undertake a second test to sort them out, but in the end did so, and confirmed that our “F4” is in fact Carmenere.
In the vineyard Ransom Wines’ Carmenere is better behaved than any of their other Bordeaux varieties. Robin says: “It seems to resist most of the common pathologies, and has not shown coulure effects. It ripens at about the same time as our Cabernet Sauvignon. In these respects our experience is at odds with what the literature says in explanation for the fact that the Bordelaise did not replant it after phylloxera. Maybe our climate and soils are more suitable for Carmenere than those of Bordeaux. Its only drawback to date has been the fact that it took five years to produce a crop!”
“In all other respects we are very happy with our Carmenere. The wine has great structure and colour, and in this sense is like our Cabernet Sauvignon, but in addition it has a good deal of stuffing, which Cabernet can sometimes lack. This makes it more suitable to produce as a single varietal wine than any of the other Bordeaux varieties in our experience, although we have until 2004 vintage used it as a blender. We plan to release a varietal Carmenere from 2005”.
There is a lesson in this says Allan Clarke: “All credit to Robin Ransom for carrying out the detective work and confirming F4 as Carmenere. It just goes to show that you need about ten plus years to fully evaluate a new clone or variety, and this was the length of time that it took the industry to realize the value of Chardonnay clone 15. Credit too to those who persevered with F4 driven by the quality of the wine it produces”
This story was published in New Zealand Grape Grower, October/November 2006