|Same grape, different names|
Currently Argentines drink most of their Bonarda themselves. (Argentines, who have a strong Italian influence, are the biggest wine drinkers in South America.) It makes a gentle red wine with blueberry flavors and softer tannins than Malbec -- sounds good, right? But Malbec is easy to sell to American importers; Bonarda isn't.
Yet Argentine wineries realize they can't fall into the trap Australia has of being known only for one type of cheap red wine. Thus there has been a push for Torrontes, a nice floral white grape (try the excellent Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Torrontes 2011, $15.)
Still, another red wine would diversify Argentina in the minds of US wine drinkers far more than a white. Hence, wine explorers are being given a chance to taste some Bonarda, so we can tell you all about it.
Bonarda isn't well-understood. There are several grapes from Italy called Bonarda, but genetic testing has shown they aren't the same as what's called Bonarda in Argentina. In fact, like Malbec, the Argentine grape actually came from France, where it's a minor grape from Savoie called Corbeau.
Laura Catena, a California resident and ER room doctor from Argentina, recently organized a Charbono/Bonarda tasting in San Francisco. I'm always happy to see Laura, especially if she's not removing bullets from me.
Catena said the reason Argentines stuck with the Italian name Bonarda for the grape, rather than switching to Corbeau, is that they didn't want another French-named grape. It does make tastings confusing, though. We tried some Italian Bonardas, but I'm not sure why. Let's stick to one grape here for clarity's sake.
Without opening a bottle, there's one obvious difference between US Charbono and Argentine Bonarda: price. The four Argentine wines we tried retailed between $10-$20, as befits a wine the locals actually drink every day. The four US Charbonos were $28-$42, as befits a specialty product for wine geeks.
Perhaps because they could spend more money on production, the two best wines were from the US.
Testa Vineyards Mendocino County Charbono 2010 ($40) tastes so much like ripe Bing cherries that you'd really have to be a blue meanie not to get a smile on your face. Good acidity keeps it refreshing, and nicely structured tannins and a dry finish remind you that it's wine. The Testa family estate is certified organic. At 13.5% alcohol, it's restrained in that sense for either country, but this is an exuberant wine that transmits joy. The bad news: Only 75 cases were made. You can order it from the winery. 93 points.
Tikal Patriota Mendoza Malbec-Bonarda 2010 ($20), from Laura's brother Ernesto Catena, was my favorite of the Argentine wines. Though it's only 40% Bonarda, you can taste its presence in the lovely blueberry flavor and gentle tannins. There are some pretty floral notes, and this is an easy wine to enjoy. Ernesto calls it "Patriota" because Bonarda and Malbec are the foundation of Argentine winemaking. 13.8% alcohol. With 11,000 cases produced, this is the easiest of these wines to find. 91 points. Order it here. (Pay no attention to the Wine Advocate rating on that page. What do they know?)
Laura also opened a 1999 vintage of this wine, which was 65% Bonarda, 35% Malbec. It had aged well, with mature notes of leather and cherry tobacco on the nose and a fresh palate with that characteristic blueberry fruit and plenty of acidity. I took a glass for the road ('cause I walked.)
T-Vine Cellars Frediani Vineyard Calistoga, Napa Valley Charbono 2009 ($42) This is more wine-like than the exuberant Testa version, with beautiful Bing cherry fruit, some floral notes on the nose and good acidity. It's both lively and teeth-staining. Only 150 cases were produced; 14.1% alcohol. 91 points. Order it here.
La Posta Armando Vineyard Mendoza Bonarda 2010 ($19) The fruit is a little more black currant than blueberry, but this wine from an own-rooted vineyard at 2,300 feet elevation has the grape's characteristic soft tannins and good acidity, and is a pleasant weeknight wine. It's a collaboration between Laura Catena and the Sausalito importer Vine Connections. 89 points. Order it here.