Pennsylvania Wine School: Carmine

carmine wine glass

Chambour-huh? Vidal who? Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential grape varieties? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Varietal: Carmine (pronounced car-mine or car-meen)

Grown: Across Pennsylvania, but especially in Lake Erie and southeastern PA

Similar to: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

In the 1940s, winemakers looking for a hardy grape that could produce bold, full-bodied red wines in colder climates turned to Dr. Harold Olmo at the University of California, Davis for help. After 20 years of experimentation, Carmine was born. The new varietal was the result of crossing Cabernet Sauvignon with Carignane (a varietal used mostly for blending in southern France and Spain), then crossing that resulting grape with Merlot.

As designed, Carmine is more tolerant of cold temperatures than its famously fickle forefathers. It thrives in climates such as coastal California, Oregon, Ohio, New York, and, of course, Pennsylvania. The resulting wines, meanwhile, retain the inherited flavors of pepper, tobacco, dark fruit, chocolate, and even mint (a trait handed down from Cabernet Sauvignon). They also boast a beautiful dark inky color and herbaceous aromas.

Despite its appealing traits, the grape is still a bit of an underdog. There are those in-the-know, and that population is growing thanks to an increasing number of Pennsylvania vineyards taking a chance on the varietal. Winemakers are wooed by the idea of producing a tannic, medium-to-full-bodied red with traits that can be more difficult to coax out in East Coast wines — earthiness and smoothness balanced by aromas of red raspberry and black currant. There’s another reason people love this grape: In the fall, the leaves turn a stunning burgundy, bringing a new color to the vineyard tableau.

While some fresher, lighter iterations of Carmine are delightful to drink young, more tannic vintages benefit from a couple of years in the cellar.

When it comes to pairing, allow the child to displace the parents — where you’d usually serve Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, pop the cork on a bottle of Carmine instead. Enticing options include grilled steaks, spaghetti with meatballs, cured meats, veggie chili, blue cheese, and mushroom toast. Because of its dark chocolate finish, you can also pour a glass alongside your favorite chocolate dessert.