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Bonarda: Argentina's next big thing?

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The Bonarda grape came to Argentina in the late 19th century. Today, it’s the second most widely planted grape in Argentina, next to Malbec, and according to BonardaWine.com, is being touted by some as Argentina’s next hit in the red wine world. The size of the plantings gives weight to at least the intention to fulfill that claim.

There is disagreement as to the origin of Argentina’s Bonarda. Italy has its own Bonarda, but it is not the same grape as the Argentine version; genetic evidence seems to indicate that Argentina’s version originated in the Savoie region of France, where it’s known as Corbeau. Interestingly enough, Corbeau is grown in California as Charbono and also goes by the name Douce Noir (keeping score: Argentina’s Bonarda appears to be the same grape as France’s Corbeau and California’s Charbono but it’s a different varietal than Italy’s Bonarda. Got it? And just to add to the confusion, Italy has the Dolcetto grape that’s called Charbono in some regions.)

Bonarda is a late-ripening grape so it is one of the last harvested. Until recently, its primary use was as a blending grape to add color, flavor, and sometimes structure to other wines. One of the more well-known Bonarda blends is Tikal’s Patriota, which is 60% Bonarda and 40% Malbec. Many Argentine wine-makers, fearing the homogenization of Malbec (which some wine drinkers believe has already come) as happened to the Australian Shiraz, are looking to Bonarda as their next big wine.

Based on my own tastings, and wading through voluminous tasting notes on various websites, non-blend Bonarda wines (100% Bonarda) have a moderate body, flavors that tend more toward the herbal, and light to moderate tannins. Wine Spectator’s reviews of Bonarda tend towards juicy, darker fruits, and ‘fleshy’ notes. None of their reviews indicate aging potential, and as you meander towards the lower scores the flavors lean towards medicine, herbs, and chemical flavors. There are indications that the older vines produce richer juice and potentially better wines, but as happened with Malbec, winemakers have to take care not to highlight the less-than-optimal characteristics of the wine in a rush to get to market.

According to noted Argentine wine expert and University of Miami Professor Dr. Steve Stein, until recently almost all Bonardas came from the lower altitude, hotter region of Eastern Mendoza. But as with the increasing production of quality Malbecs, Bonarda growers are moving towards the Andes finding that higher altitude plantings can produce a more nuanced and richer wine.

Next week: Some notes from a recent Bonarda tasting.

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