Illustration by Rebecca Bradley
Wine is not exempt from conversations about colonization and colonialism. Even the terms “Old World and New World” are rooted in colonialist thought.
In some instances, transplanted grapes had even been marginalized and forgotten in their homelands and were dying to belong.
As people migrated with culinary and agricultural traditions in tow, certain grape varieties came to be associated or even synonymous with regions far beyond their countries of origin. These grapes traveled through untrodden lands, where growers and settlers experimented with them, and where they subsequently thrived in their new, foreign home and became a national symbol of pride. These are their stories.
The phylloxera blight in Europe was one of the greatest agricultural tragedies to affect wine production in modern times. It brought the European wine industry to its knees in the 1800s, but for Chile, it turned out to be a boon. Thus begins the story of Carmenère’s success there.
Chile’s Carmenère about as diverse a lineage as grapes—or anything, for that matter—come. Ancient Romans were said to have brought the grapes to Italy. Carmenère’s parents include Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, a variety with Spanish origins. However, Carmenère is also considered one of the original Bordeaux varieties, and via France is how it is believed to have made its name in Chile via France.
In the mid-1800s, Carmenère fell out of favor in Bordeaux due to how difficult it was to cultivate. Its low-yielding bunches were prone to shatter and disease, and it was hard to grow in Bordeaux’s climate.
Because a large amount of French plantings of the variety were wiped out during the phylloxera infestation, and replanting of the variety post-phylloxera was largely abandoned, and Carmenère was later thought to be extinct.
In 1994, however, DNA testing proved it was present (under the guise of Merlot vines) in Chile.