Carmenere, one of Chile’s most popular wine varietals, was once very close to extinction. Originally, Carmenere was grown in Bordeaux, France and used in some of the great Bordeaux red blends. In the late 1800’s, phylloxera, a microscopic aphid, destroyed a majority of the wine grapes in France. This period was known as the Great French Wine Blight, though it eventually made it’s way across Europe and even Australia and New Zealand. It was thought that all Carmenere vines had completely died during this time.
Before the phylloxera destruction, the Chilean wine industry began to take off. Back then, if you were starting a vineyard, the natural source for vines was France. Chilean wineries began planting a mix of Bordeaux vines, including Merlot and Carmenere. Merlot and Carmenere look very similar so over the centuries the identity of the Carmenere vines was lost and forgotten and lumped in with the Merlot. Even though every other major wine region at the time was affected by phylloxera in some way, Chile remained the only major wine producing country that completely evaded the bug, most likely due to it being surrounded by the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that someone noticed that the “Chilean Merlot” had a stronger and spicier taste than other Merlots that were grown in other regions. Using DNA mapping, a professor at University of Montpellier’s School of Oenology (a world-renown wine school) identified it as the long-lost Carmenere.
After the discovery, Chileans embraced their “new found” varietal so much that it is now considered the national grape.