Carmenere is one of the classic grapes from the 1800's. It was born in Bordeaux, France and was known to be called the Grand Vidure. Historically, Carmenere had been difficult to grow in cold, humid climates, and was all but vanished from the European soil when a plague called phylloxera, caused by a louse, ravaged the French vineyards.
Grapegrowers tried to revive it along with the region's other five key red grapes: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. But it proved hard to revive as farmers tried to graft the remnants of vines onto new, hearty roots, and was essentially lost.
Carmenere was imported to South America in the 1850's, along with other Bordeaux varieties, prior to the European outbreak of phylloxera. European grape growers planted vines in Chile, and started their winemaking.
For more than a century, Chilean farmers assumed the variety they were growing was merlot, until a DNA analysis, confirmed by french ampelographer (the branch of botany that studies the cultivation of grapes), Jean Michel Bousiquot discovered the truth in 1994.
It became Chile's own signature grape as it did not exist anywhere else. Similar to merlot, but much deeper in color, it is the purplest of all red grapes. It is rich in berry fruits and spice, with smooth well rounded tannins, making this a very pleasing and easy to drink varietal.
Carmenere is dark and smoky in intensity. It is rich and bold and has almost no transparency when poured in a glass.
Now disappeared from its homeland, Carmenere came back to life with a second chance. Chilean vintners, realizing they have something few other wine regions do, have staked a claim on carmenere as their flagship wine.
Chilean producers have made the grape far more accessible to the average drinker. Santa Rita offers it in both its 120 brand of value wines and a reserve bottling. Its 2002 carmenère(Vineyard Brands, $5-7) is big on the smoke and tannins, but it's also an excellent introduction to the grape. Chilean wine giant Concha y Toro also offers affordable varietal carmenère under its Casillero del Diablo label.