Decimated by a plant-eating insect in its native France in the late 1800s, carménère quickly disappeared from collective memory. Nearly a century later, though, the dark red grape was discovered to be growing in Chile, planted by French winemaker emigrants. Today, one vineyard on the North Fork is producing the full-bodied, punchy grape—and they’re doing so with delicious results.
2010 was a good year for North Fork wine, and it was arguably an even better one for Osprey’s Dominion. That was the year the Peconic vineyard and winery released 124 cases of its 2007 carménère, five years after importing three-and-a-half acres of the rare vines from Chile.
“We originally planted carménère to be part of our Bordeaux blend,” says Adam Suprenant, the winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion for the past 13 years. (The winery belongs to the Meritage Alliance, an association dedicated to producing high-quality blends of Bordeaux varieties). “But in ’07 we made the first carménère wine and it was so unbelievably delicious that we decided to make a varietal. ”
“Delicious” is no exaggeration. Osprey Dominion’s current offering of carménère, a 2010 vintage, boasts an intoxicating blackberry and cassis aroma. Aged 14 months in French oak, the wine is simultaneously mellow and acidic.
“We cannot keep it on the shelves, Suprenant says. “I think the unique thing about Osprey’s carménère is that we get a very spicy version. It also has this cedar chest, almost eucalyptus thing going on.”
Part of what makes Osprey Dominion’s carménère so appealing is the 25 percent merlot it adds to the wine to give it balance. While fine to drink on its own, carménère can lack the full-mouth feel so prized in good wines.
“Carménère has what I’d describe as kind of a hole in the middle,” Suprenant says. “We use merlot to kind of flesh out the mid-palate of the wine and to get it to be balanced. Wine should have a beginning, middle and end, and hopefully all three are memorable.”
Unforgettable, actually. Carménère, whose name stems from the French word for “crimson” (carmin), was originally planted in the Bordeaux region of France, where it was used to make deep red wines. After sap-sucking insects called phylloxera nearly wiped out all Europe’s vineyards in the 1860s, French emigrants are believed to have planted carménère in Chile, where it was confused with merlot until the 1990s, when a French wine expert confirmed the difference.
Kurt Knabbe, who has worked in Osprey’s Dominion tasting room for five years, admits he was captivated by carménère almost from the moment he tried it.
“I think I got hooked on it because, as a brandy drinker, it comes across a lot like a brandy to me,” Knabbe says.
Alas, like most good things, there never seems to be enough carménère. It’s a shy producer, Suprenant says, and weather conditions need to be just right for it to flourish. Hot, dry weather, especially in September, is pivotal to the success of the grape, which has a long growing season and isn’t picked at Osprey’s Dominion until late October.
“They say winemaking is a 50/50 proposition,” Knabbe says. “Half of it’s in the winemaker’s hands and the other half is in God’s.”
Yet it’s that sense of uncertainty that makes winemaking, especially making wine from the tasty and elusive carménère grape, so worth it.
“It’s unique,” Suprenant says of the varietal. “I don’t think you can really compare it with anything else. The spice is really what sets it apart. It’s definitely got the Bordeaux thread, but I can put that 25 percent of merlot in there and you’ll still taste the carménère.”
Who would want it any other way?
Check out the rest of this feature story “Tale of Two Wines” from the Long Island Wine Press.