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Carmenere vs. Malbec: Comparing the two Varietals

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“What a delicious wine!” exclaims the client with real enthusiasm after his first sip of Carmenere, a popular Chilean varietal that was once mistaken for Merlot given its soft, velvety nature. Of course, the CEO started off the dinner with two very expensive bottles of Burgundy, which given the young vintage were not exactly showing at their best. In order to change the theme, and lower the tab, I quickly scanned the menu and ordered the $40 bottle.

Why Carmenere? Why now? Since the client refused to be poured more of the Burgundy and sipped Carmenere with interest, I imagine it is because Carmenere is ready to drink, incredibly delicious, and easy on the pocketbook during these challenging economic times. This brings me to the main point of this column: the exact same statement can be said of Malbec, a varietal which is “old world” in nature (think the Loire and Bordeaux), yet has found new popularity in Argentina.

Now that I have attained my Diploma from the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust, my next step is the Master of Wine, a self-study program in which students must blind taste wines and guess the varietals in a deductive fashion. Since Malbec and Carmenere are both a purple-ruby color with a similar nose and palate, yet come from two different countries and grape varietals, I needed to taste test them together in order to fix their characteristics in my mind.

If you would like to perform a similar taste test, call your local wine store, explain what you are doing, and ask the clerk to find an example of a Malbec and Carmenere which are similar in appearance, nose, and palate, and then ask the clerk to cover the bottle (usually done with a wine bag).

Once you receive the bottles, invite a few wine savvy friends over (not necessary, yet fun) and pour them a small amount of each varietal in two separate glasses. For my own test, the clerk sent me Crucero Carmenere from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, and La Flor de Pulenta Wines (the Malbec) from Mendoza, Argentina.

As I suspected, both the wines looked similar in the glass, an extracted ruby-purple, though the Carmenere was a bit muddier while the Malbec had more of a scintillating brightness and clarity to it. Swirling each glass, I saw that the Carmenere had extraction in the tears (the waves of wine that rise and fall with each swirl), yet the glass became stained by them. The Malbec also had extraction (usually indicating a thick skinned grape), yet the tears did not stain the glass.

On the nose, both appeared initially similar. The Carmenere had smoke, rich red/black fruit, and a concentrated note like fig. The Malbec had a more pronounced oak (similar to a fireplace, though it could just be this one producer), and the wine seemed to be more red/purple flowers than fruit. In palate, the Carminere and Malbec both had med+ acidity, lower tannin, med to med- body, and alcohol around 13.5. Both my friend and I could recognize the Carminere when side-by-side with the Malbec, as it was smoother, had more body, and a bit more lush.

If you try this at home, please tell me your thoughts!

Technical notes: The Carmenere was made from 100/5 estate grown grapes with fermentation in stainless steel and aging in French oak for twelve months. La Flor de Pulenta Malbec made from 100% Estate fruit from the youngest vines and six months in neutral French oak barrels.

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