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Carmenere, a grape variety lost in the shadows of its Bordeaux cousins for more than a century, is finally re-conquering the hearts of those who prize fine wine and sumptuous dining.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates this month is distributing its first major bottling of Carmenere (Carmen-AIR), produced in Chile under the Calina label. Kendall-Jackson has produced award-winning wines in Chile since 1993.

Yet no variety says "Chile" like Carmenere. Its re-emergence is the story of a happy accident.

Carmenere was little more than an archival curiosity until the early 1990s, when winemakers discovered that many of the Chilean vines they had called Merlot were actually Carmenere

The grape once played a large part in Bordeaux winemaking, but its low yields forced it out of favor when French viticulturists replanted after the phylloxera outbreak of the 1880s. Meanwhile, Carmenere from France had quietly migrated to Chile, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

By the 1990s, Chileans were profiting from the worldwide fascination with Merlot. However, some winemakers noticed traits that set some of their Merlot apart. Analysis soon showed that Carmenere had been planted willy-nilly among the Merlot, and that much of Chilean Merlot was in reality Carmenere.

Rather than panic, Chilean winemakers deftly turned scandal into opportunity. They recognized what Carmenere lovers have come to appreciate: the low tannins and big, bright blackberry fruit of Carmenere make it a delight to drink and an ideal match for a range of foods.

Since Chile began actively marketing Carmenere in the mid-1990s, it has come to symbolize the nation much like Shiraz calls to mind Australia, Malbec Argentina and Zinfandel California.

"The mix-up was understandable," said Randy Ullom, Winemaster for Kendall-Jackson and supervisor of winemaking for Calina. "Carmenere and Merlot are similar. But the trained eye can notice Carmenere sports pinkish leaves that set it apart."

Carmenere is bound to grow in popularity as wine lovers discover its lush, exotic flavors, Ullom said. Those flavors are improving as new vineyards -- this time properly labeled -- mature and viticulturists learn how to pamper the fruit to best advantage. Winemakers are devoting more time to Carmenere as a distinct variety, drawing out what is richest in the ripened fruit.

"The Chilean growing season was the saving grace for Carmenere," Ullom said. "It ripens later than Merlot, which can cause troubles in colder France. Credit it all to a mistake that turned into a godsend for Chile and for wine lovers. Carmenere can finally take the place it deserves among the red royalty of wine."

Calina Carmenere 1999 was aged nine months in French and American oak barrels. Its berry aromas, low acid and soft tannins pair well with cuisine world wide. Its suggested retail price is $6.99, and it is widely available in fine wine stores starting in September.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates produces wines from the mountain and coastal regions of California and South America, featuring the wines of Kendall-Jackson and Camelot from California, La Crema from Sonoma's Russian River, Edmeades from Mendocino's Anderson Valley and Pepi from Napa and Sonoma counties. From South America Kendall-Jackson offers Calina from Chile and Tapiz from Argentina.


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