Founded in 1850, Carmen was the first Chilean winery and to this day is still making some of the most popular wines from the country, which is no mean feat. It now exports to over fifty countries and according to their head winemaker, Ireland is one of its most important, if not the number one country for its wines.
Surprising, yes and no. I am still impressed when I am told this by winemakers but I can also understand it. Ireland does not really have a wine making background but is an island of curious people with an appetite to explore and appreciate quality. We can distinguish between good and bad and we keep an open mind to the world so to the wine world, Ireland is definitely a country you want to market in; and their success shows they are making good wines. (Yes, some not so good wines do sneak in but overall, we are spoilt with variety in terms of grape, country & quality).
I recently had the luck to spend a few minutes with Sebastian Labbe, head winemaker for Carmen. I have known Carmen wines for many years, what I didn’t know was that it is a relatively small company. It does however have many plots in five different regions (Casablanca, Leyda, Alto Maipo, Colchagua & Apalta) and some of the best equipment out there. Apart from Sebastian there are only twelve people working on production. It must be a sizeable production I think, as it is available all around Ireland, but seeing as Carmen has been making wines for around 160 years, it has had plenty of time to establish itself.
Sebastian is a warm, friendly, unassuming guy, exactly the kind of person you want making your wine as he is looking at the grape, the terroir and how he can express it all in a bottle for you. He told me that as Carmen has now established itself and has great sites around Chile and great equipment, now is the time to really go for it.
Sebastian is from Chile himself but moved to New Zealand with his family in the 90s. He started off as a bartender, then studied Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University in New Zealand while also working in various wineries throughout Martinborough. After completing his degree he joined Tyrell’s winery and worked there for some time before becoming Assistant Winemaker at Margrain Vineyard. He then moved back to Chile to join the Carmen team in 2005. He also spent time travelling to different wine regions which became his main influence.
Carmen are now going more traditional with wine, winemaking and growing techniques. They want each area to be a kind of boutique, really showcasing what the wine is about and how what you taste is the unique terroirs expressing themselves through the grape. It is here where Sebastian is keen to make sure that after all the hard work that they keep this and bottle it. More care with oak if it is used is also an important key for them. Carmen is also seeing the market changing with quality being looked for at all levels, but it also sees people enjoying a glass with their meals and how this impacts the product.
Carmen are now investing more time and money in the vineyards where they want to be less invasive and are aiming for organic vineyards. Sustainability is a word that holds great importance for Sebastian & Carmen. They want to express each area’s purity in a bottle, a lightweight one which has less of a carbon footprint. They want their brand to be recognized and known for delivering fantastic and characterful wines. This will be achieved by Sebastian as he has a young and motivated team determined to show what Carmen can bring to the table.
Carmen have recently released their ‘Wave Series’ from their vineyards in Leyda which are located close to the Pacific ocean. The wines express this with a light salinity running through them, whilst the Premier Wines (Reserva) from Colchagua really show the individual grapes purity.
Carmen wines are widely available around Ireland.
Suzi is passionate about wine, beer and whiskey too, not forgetting a love of food and travel. She has been a part of this industry for a little over 10 years. She has worked on level 4 in WSET during this time and regularly hosts tastings and staff training in these sectors. She has recently started a blog on all wine, beer and spirit related beverages. You can follow her blog at suzisgrapecrush or follow Suzi on Twitter