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updated: 10/19/2011 12:09 PM

Carmenere: New again

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Believe it or not, the wine business can be pretty same-old-same-old dull. There's the soil, there's the climate, the grape, blah-blah.

But every once in awhile, something comes along to shake things up. Something like Carmenere.

I remember like yesterday where I was when the big news hit. It was a frigid Friday in 1994, at a wine distributor meeting -- sales goals, new routes, supplier lectures about their climate, their soil, blah-blah. Then up to the mike steps a Chilean winegrower. ("Where's Chile again?" my neighbor whispers while tabulating his week's commission.)

"Congratulations on your sales of Chilean Merlot," the winegrower begins. The grape was on the rise, beginning a market domination that didn't end until 2004.

"However," he continued, "we no longer produce Merlot." And now every sales rep snapped to full attention. "Our vineyards are now entirely Carmenere."

"What's $#%^ Carmenere?!" my neighbor chokes as his commission fades before his eyes.

Even I -- a Master Sommelier trainee -- struggled with the history: Carmenere (KARM-men-YAIR), one of the original Bordeaux red varieties along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; highly susceptible to damp and phylloxera and extinct.

But not extinct forever, thanks to a twist of fate that I learned about that morning and the wine world has watched ever since.

In January 1994, professor Jean Michel Bousiquot identified cuttings from Chile as the long-lost Carmenere, a finding that blazed throughout the Chilean industry. The country had been planted in the pre-phylloxera 1800s with vines thought to be Merlot and Cabernet imported from Bordeaux. It took DNA testing to prove that the mix included a generous portion of Carmenere -- possibly more than 50 percent -- which thrived in Chile's warm, dry vineyards.

So those unique qualities attributed to Chilean Merlot -- deeply crimson color, cherry flavors accented by green herbs, dark chocolate and leather and plush finish -- really applied, in whole or part, to Carmenere.

Since that day in 1994, there has been a lot of work in re-building appreciation of an old grape that's new again. Thankfully, the important work was already under-root in the vineyards and continues to this day.

Carmenere is now Chile's signature red, with happy consumers in all price and quality categories.

For under $15, to enjoy with flavorful and casual meals including autumnal grills, Mediterranean and Latino cuisine, ask for Casa Lapostolle, Cono Sur, Misiones de Rengo or Santa Digna by Torres.

Casa Lapostolle, the company that defined the quality potential of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc also produces "Cuvee Alexandre Apalta," a stunner in many vintages ($30). Serve it and "Ross' Choice" with the finest meats and elegant roasts.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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