The Casa Lapostolle 2007 Cuvée Alexandre Carmenére is the best South American wine I've tasted yet. Maybe this is not terribly surprising since it's one of the few I've tried that (barely) tops the $20 mark. Nonetheless, it has the quality and balance of a wine double or triple its price. Casa Lapostolle's top wine, Clos Apalta, regularly wins major accolades and usually is composed of about 40% Carmenére. This is their first release of a varietal Carmenére from their decade-old younger vines in their premium-but-not-crazy-expensive line of wines.
Carmenére is best known for its approach to near extinction and subsequent rediscovery in Chile. The vine louse Phylloxera devastated France in the 19th century, nearly wiping out the entire wine industry. While other varietals were replanted in Bordeaux, Carmenére fell out of favor. However, Carmenére and Merlot had been transplanted to Chile prior to the outbreak, with both thought to be Merlot until the last several decades. Since its identification, Carmenére has become the signature varietal of Chile. It's often described as being a cross between the suppleness of Merlot and the herbal nuances of Cabernet Franc. However, these virtues often become a vice because Carmenére tends towards low acidity and ripens late. If one harvest stoo early, the herbal nuances result in harsh overtly green flavors and aromas. If one harvests too late, the suppleness turns into a lack of tannic and acidic structure. Mass-produced Carmenére is readily available in the US these days, and this latter "feature" probably works in the producers' favor since the simplistic flavor profile of cheap wine is typically more palatable without high acid and harsh tannins. Often times these wines turn out both flabby and vegetal--even Charles Shaw a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck sets the bar higher than that.
Because of this preponderance of mediocre wine, I just haven't been buying Carmenére recently. I wondered if Carmenére is even all that interesting of a grape outside of its novelty factor. Well, Casa Lapostolle's take is an epiphany in a bottle: this is Carmenére in its essence. It's not a Merlot, it's not a Cabernet Franc. It is its own unique varietal.
Casa Lapostolle's was the first Carmenére I've encountered with really lively acidity. Flavors of perfectly ripe currants and bakers' chocolate were wonderfully balanced with typically New World creamy oak on the mid-palate. On one level this was a rather international wine. Yet the flavors were harmoniously and seamlessly layered through a long finish that highlighted dried herbs and dark chocolate without any cheap medicinal flavors to detract. This was not your garden variety fruit bomb or oak monster. It sat somewhere in the very happy medium to full bodied range despite the concentrated fruit and fully opaque black color.
The bouquet was a bit shy at first, with only spice-box barrel aromas showing at first. After an hour the wine evolved into a complex, well-balanced but youthful beauty. Dried herbs and roasted peppers were at the forefront with a layer of black currant in the background. The nose was very clean, yet had a pure, irresistible earthiness forcefully declaring its Colchagua Valley terroir.
While the tannins were fairly prominent, my guess is this is not a wine for long-term aging. The balance of fruitiness to savory and earthy flavors is already excellent, and waiting more than a few years might risk letting the fruit dry out. But this wine could still use a little time to integrate fully.
This is a great wine that manages to appeal to both the Franc fanatic and California palate in me. Definitely one to try if you come across as for me it really expressed the best qualities I've experienced in Chilean wine. By the way, Casa Lapostolle is owned by the same family that produces Grand Marnier liqueur. By coincidence I was about to take a picture of the wine bottle, noticed the Grand Marnier on the shelf where I had placed the bottle, and included it in the photo as well.
Pros: Balanced, Lively Acidity, Very Earthy, Layered Flavors, Excellent Depth
Cons: Not Fully Integrated Yet
Decant: Yes, for about 30-60 minutes
Price: $22 from Costco
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)