Carmenere vs: Malbec: Comparing the Two Varietals

multi color grapes

"What a delicious wine!" exclaims the client with real enthusiasm after his first sip of Carmenere, a popular Chilean varietal that was once mistaken for Merlot given its soft, velvety nature. Of course, the CEO started off the dinner with two very expensive bottles of Burgundy, which given the young vintage were not exactly showing at their best. In order to change the theme, and lower the tab, I quickly scanned the menu and ordered the $40 bottle.

Why Carmenere? Why now? Since the client refused to be poured more of the Burgundy and sipped Carmenere with interest, I imagine it is because Carmenere is ready to drink, incredibly delicious, and easy on the pocketbook during these challenging economic times. This brings me to the main point of this column: the exact same statement can be said of Malbec, a varietal which is "old world" in nature (think the Loire and Bordeaux), yet has found new popularity in Argentina.

Now that I have attained my Diploma from the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust, my next step is the Master of Wine, a self-study program in which students must blind taste wines and guess the varietals in a deductive fashion. Since Malbec and Carmenere are both a purple-ruby color with a similar nose and palate, yet come from two different countries and grape varietals, I needed to taste test them together in order to fix their characteristics in my mind.

If you would like to perform a similar taste test, call your local wine store, explain what you are doing, and ask the clerk to find an example of a Malbec and Carmenere which are similar in appearance, nose, and palate, and then ask the clerk to cover the bottle (usually done with a wine bag).

Once you receive the bottles, invite a few wine savvy friends over (not necessary, yet fun) and pour them a small amount of each varietal in two separate glasses. For my own test, the clerk sent me Crucero Carmenere from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, and La Flor de Pulenta Wines (the Malbec) from Mendoza, Argentina.

As I suspected, both the wines looked similar in the glass, an extracted ruby-purple, though the Carmenere was a bit muddier while the Malbec had more of a scintillating brightness and clarity to it. Swirling each glass, I saw that the Carmenere had extraction in the tears (the waves of wine that rise and fall with each swirl), yet the glass became stained by them. The Malbec also had extraction (usually indicating a thick skinned grape), yet the tears did not stain the glass.

On the nose, both appeared initially similar. The Carmenere had smoke, rich red/black fruit, and a concentrated note like fig. The Malbec had a more pronounced oak (similar to a fireplace, though it could just be this one producer), and the wine seemed to be more red/purple flowers than fruit. In palate, the Carminere and Malbec both had med+ acidity, lower tannin, med to med- body, and alcohol around 13.5. Both my friend and I could recognize the Carminere when side-by-side with the Malbec, as it was smoother, had more body, and a bit more lush.

If you try this at home, please tell me your thoughts! I am story @awine and you can also tweet me @awinestory

Technical notes: The Carmenere was made from 100/5 estate grown grapes with fermentation in stainless steel and aging in French oak for twelve months. La Flor de Pulenta Malbec made from 100% Estate fruit from the youngest vines and six months in neutral French oak barrels.

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  • Andre

    Carmenere is a very complex and excellent wine. Being from France I do not however think Malbec in general is a wine for people with great taste. I hated leaving in America a plaec where all they drink is wine that taste like juice, Malbec in general apllies to this kinds.

  • E Wallo

    Or you could obtain a bottle each of Malbec and Carmenere from Yorkville Cellars – both grown in their estate vineyard in southern Mendocino, which has been farmed certified organic since 1986. Then you’d be tasting the difference in the varietals, not differences in terroir, winemaking techniques, etc.

  • Jean David

    I do not think of Malbec as a wine for people that knows wine, being so soft and girly testing. I am French, and a Carmenere is a very complex yet unique testing wine. I personally love Merlot, so I identify with Carmenere as excellent wine

  • Victoria

    I love Carmenere, especially the Valdivieso one. I like Malbec too and would be interested to taste them side-by-side. I only discovered Carmenere recently but I love it already.

  • Mickel Siler

    I think of Malbec as a “starter wine” to introduce people to drinking wine. As for Carmenere, I think there are few vintners with the patience to do it right and thus there is a low supply of quality in the market. Carmenere takes a very long time to ripen. Ripe, it is wonderful with soft tannins and a medium body with a mild fruitiness and a slight, but pleasing vegetal quality. I love it, but only when done right. The only relation to Merlot I see is in its appearance alone. Infact that is why so many Chilean Carmeneres are labeled as Merlot. And I venture to say that drinkin these under ripe Carmeneres marketed as Merlot can put the drinker off of both Chilean Merlot and Carmenere entirely because it is a bad representation. You think you are drinking a bad Merlot then you find its actually a bad Carmenere and lose respect for the vintner and both varietals

  • Ed

    Love Malbec. I only had one Carmenere and even thu i’m no a wine “connoisseur”, it did tastes a bit like Merlot and loved it. But.. Malbec it’s still my favorite. Thanks Argentina and California!!!

  • Jean Lassy

    I love Carmenere!!!!! and Merlot as well

  • “T” Moore

    The past 5 1/2 months I have been in search of a Malbec that I liked (<$40 per bottle), I have tasted none that I would purchase again. During this 5 1/2 month period I was also tasting Chilian wines, I like them better; today I tasted a Carmenere approximately $13 per bottle, I thought it was vastly superior to any Malbec that I tried thus far.

  • facundo

    i think carmenere is more complex and taste better than a malbec, actually chilean wines always taste better than the argentinian ones, just for instance chile have better malbecs than argentina, i think thats the bottom line.

  • doug

    Try Colores del Sol Malbec. It is great

  • Kathryn Bogala Calgary Alberta

    Preferred the Carminere to the Malbec. This is an excellent wine both smooth with a rich complex taste!

  • Adeline

    I just took a few wine classes in California, being from France I was surrounded by wine conversations and I personally never cared for wine much. My husband is American and loves wine, funny but true. Now that I know more about wine, I strongly don’t think much of any Malbec, it for the masses that want as someday said a starting wine, is very easy drinking for my taste, so the more you know wine the more you want complexity, Carmernere is very, very complex

  • Don

    TonIght I had a bottle of Viu Manent gran reserva Carmenere 2010 and Norton reserve Malbec, both $15. I found the C fruity and tasty with soft tannins, quite enjoyable. The M was more tannic and structured but less pleasant to the palate. It went better with the grilled steak we had for dinner. Overall I enjoyed the C more for pure drinking or with a less flavor able meat dish

  • http://none gaylord stewart

    i live in mexico for six months and bc for six months. just recently tried carmenere for the first time and was very impressed. costco had it on as a special for about five bucks a bottle. i am a long time wine drinker at age 70 and well travelled in the world.this should make someone a lot of denero

  • Rob

    Cab or Merlot for me!!!!! I will start trying Carmernere, but my wife is a big drinker of Malbec

  • Pierre

    Most Carmernere tates like really decent Merlots!!! I believe the price of Carmernere’s will soon go up.

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