Weekly Wine Talk : Review of Phylloxera & modern day Carménère

Written by
Amy Garofano
Amy Garofano, JM's Wine Educator

It's been too long since the last edition of Weekly Wine Talk and the release of our beautiful Bramble Bump Carménère is the perfect time to jump right back in and provide a review of this marvelous Bordeaux varietal, originally from the Medoc region of France. It is impossible to consider modern day Carménère without first learning about the grape's storied past.

During the late 1800’s, an epidemic caused by phylloxera, a tiny, yellow root louse, nearly wiped out the European wine industry and forever changed the way wine grapes are grown in the modern world. Phylloxera has two life cycles, above and below ground. Below ground the louse feasts on grapevine roots, damaging root systems and eventually killing the vine. Eggs are laid on the soil surface or just below. Above ground, phylloxera damage the leaves of the vine, causing color changes and  unsightly leaf galls (look like blisters). The pest reproduces every 2-4 weeks resulting in many generations in one grape growing season, making phylloxera very hard to control. Phylloxera can spread to other vineyards through infected plants, proximity to an infected area, and the louse can hitch a ride from vineyard to vineyard via dirt on workers' boots and clothing and via machinery.  

Victorian era botanists unknowingly introduced phylloxera to Europe by introducing American native grapevines to European vineyards. Collecting specimen plants became a popular hobby as world travel was made possible via early transoceanic voyages. As wine gained popularity, transporting grapevines across the Atlantic seemed like a good idea. Phylloxera was an American pest but most of our own native grapevines were resistant to it because of many years of exposure to the pest. For this reason, American vines appeared healthy- they did not look diseased or visibly infected. It wasn’t until phylloxera had already made its way to Europe that its existence was even discovered. Unfortunately, the Vitis vinifera vines native to Europe easily suffered phylloxera’s detrimental effects. The vineyards of the Old World were arranged in field blends (grape varietals were not grown in organized blocks) and instead vineyards were cramped with sprawling rows of vines, making  them especially susceptible to the spread of phylloxera.

France alone lost nearly half of its vineyards to phylloxera and within a decade fell from being the world’s largest exporter of wine to becoming the largest importer. It would take generations to recover losses.  

Huge rewards were offered to anyone who could develop a cure for phylloxera. It took many years of research and experimenting, but the epidemic eventually led to the practice of grafting European Vitis vinifera vines to resistant American rootstocks. There are very few grape growing regions worldwide that are “phylloxera free” and to date there is no way to eradicate phylloxera from an infected area. All that can be done once infection occurs is to tear out and destroy the infected vines and replant with grapes grafted to resistant rootstock.

Phylloxera forever changed the wine industry. The Bordeaux region of France was nearly decimated. As French grape growers began to replant their vines, they found the varietals Carménère and Malbec (commonly known as Côt in France) both difficult to graft and both varietals fell out of favor in Bordeaux. Eventually, it was thought the Carménère grape had been forever lost. However, in the decade prior to the phylloxera outbreak, some grape growers had set off for the New World, venturing into Chile and Argentina and uninfected Carménère and Malbec vines travelled with them. These grapes flourished in the New World but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that it was discovered that about 50% of the "Merlot" grown in Chile was actually the long lost Carménère varietal! All was indeed not lost and the world was reintroduced to Carménère!

Today, Chile is the leading producer of Carménère, worldwide and this historic grape makes for a great story and thankfully grows well in our very own Margaret’s Vineyard, allowing John to craft beautiful JM single varietals and blends. The '22 Bramble Bump Carménère is a blend of fruit (100% Carménère) from Margaret's Vineyard and Seven Hills Vineyard in the Walla Walla AVA. The '22 Bramble Bump Carmenere is part of the Bramble Bump line of JM wines, offering the highest quality JM wines at an exceptional price.

Carménère is known for its characteristic black pepper spice. The '22 vintage of Carménère delights the palate with fresh minerality balanced with bright red raspberry flavors. This is a very special wine and the varietal is an anticipated favorite of many JM Club members. Cin Cin!