Bonarda: Who Are You?

By Celia Strong

Another long trip for us this week, figuratively speaking. Way down to Argentina. But that’s the only place we can really get this week’s wine. Trust me, though, it’s worth it. And, as we get closer to our Thanksgiving holiday, all of us are looking for good wines we can use.  For me, that means not just good, but new and different and memorable. (Let’s face it, as good as the turkey is — it is just turkey. It really is all about the wine!)

Now, as we start to look at where our wine comes from, we are in the lucky position of just having looked at Argentine wines a couple of weeks ago.  That means, hopefully, we can learn a few new things about Argentina and not repeat ourselves. We all remember, I hope, that, in the beginning, Argentina made as much wine as it could without much interest in how good it was. Their first vineyard dated back to 1557 at Santiago del Estero with expansion taking it further into Mendoza in the 1560s. As the wine industry grew larger and larger, centralized in the western part of the country among the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the population of the country grew in the eastern regions, along the Atlantic coast. The transportation of the wine, from the western foothills to the eastern cities, was a problem that slowed the wine industry’s development to a while. In 1885, the completion of the railroad that connected Mendoza to Buenes Aires helped to insure the success of the young industry.

In the 20th century, the development and success of the Argentine wine industry was deeply influenced by the economics of the rest of the country. In the 1920s, Argentina was the eighth richest country in the world. They had a large domestic market for their wines. From the time of the Great Depression, through the presidency of Juan Peron and up to the 1970s, the wine industry was sustained by inexpensive “vino de mesa.” In the early 1970s, the average Argentinian citizen drank almost 24 gallons of wine each year. At the same time, the average American was drinking less than one gallon per year.  (Thank goodness we’ve progressed well beyond those meager beginnings!)

As we’ve said before, Mendoza is probably the best known of Argentina’s wine regions and is considered the heart of the country’s wine industry. They make about two-thirds of the country’s entire wine production, although not all of it is made with “vitis vinifera” grapes. This region is located in the eastern foothills of the Andes, in the shadow of Mount Aconcaqua. Some of the Mendoza vineyards are planted at the highest elevations of any in the world; the average vineyards there are situated at 1,970 to 3,610 feet above sea level.  The principle wine producing areas in Mendoza are in two main departments — Maipu and Lujan. Argentina’s first delineated appellation was established in 1993 in Lujan de Cuyo. Malbec is the region’s most planted grape variety, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Chardonnay. However, we are going to look at a less well-known variety this week — Bonarda.

Bonarda is probably one of the most confusing varieties to learn. Actually, the name “Bonarda” is applied to several different grapes. Bonarda dell’Oltrepo Pavese, also called Croatina, is a variety grown in the Lombardy region of Italy. It makes mildly tannic wines similar in style to Dolcetto. Bonarda Novarese is Uva Rara, grown in Novara and Vercelli.  Bonarda Piedmontese is grown in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, around Turin. It makes light and fruity wines that are labeled Bonarda dell’Astigiano, Bonarda di Chieri, Bonarda di Gattinara or Bonarda del Monferrato. Yes, these are all Italian names for different Italian grapes. Yes, we’ve never heard of them before. And, yes we all probably hope to never hear about any of them again. And, yes, we haven’t yet mentioned our Bonarda that makes this week’s wine.

There is one more Bonarda grape. It is actually the Charbono grape of California that is called Bonarda in Argentina. Thank goodness for DNA testing on grapes (or more professionally “ampelography”).  It is how we can tell these grapes apart and stop telling bits and pieces about each of them interchangeably. Our Charbono/Bonarda comes from Savoie. There it was known as Corbeau or Douce Noir (sweet black).  In Italy, Dolcetto is sometimes called Dolce Nero (sweet black), but despite the same nickname, these two grapes are not the same. Dolcetto ripens early and makes a light, fruity wine.  Charbono ripens very late and makes wines with great substance.  And one more distressing thing — whichever of all these Bonardas is really in Argentina, the facts as we have them today may change as researchers learn more.  The only thing that will stay the same is how good these wines can be.

It is believed that Bonarda slipped into Argentina during the 19th century when immigrants from all over the wine world were moving to different vineyards as phylloxera spread.  Today, there are about 46,000 acres of Bonarda in Argentina, 38,000 of them in Mendoza. A generation ago it was the country’s most widely planted variety.  Most of it, though, was used for blending in anonymous jug wines, part of the huge per capita consumption of Argentine citizens. Bonarda was popular with growers because it has big yields, especially with enough water. It has intense color and good fruit flavors that made it a suitable partner for even the Criolla, non-vitis vinifera, wines. Because of this connection to lower level, jug style wines, many growers and vintners avoided using Bonarda. Perseverance paid off, though, and today Bonarda has a growing popularity. Its wines are fruity (cherries, plums), smooth, pleasant, and, not the ordinary. These wines are not quite as heavy or full as Malbecs, have fewer tannins and mild acidity.  Some producers are lucky enough to have old vine Bonarda in their vineyards. The wines from these are more concentrated in their fruit flavors (figs, raisins), more deeply colored, fuller bodied and really, really good if you find them!

Finally, we come to our producer: Ernesto Catena. He is a fourth generation wine maker, the eldest son of Nicolas Catena. Ernesto has traveled and lived around the world; he has a degree in computer Science and Economy, a Master’s degree in design from Milan and a history degree from London. He is an avid reader, painter, art collector, horseman, polo player and archer.

Ernesto Catena Vineyards is dedicated to small production wines with a distinct style. His Tahuan  (pronounced ta-wan) Bonarda comes from vineyards at 2,297 feet elevation. Before fermentation, the grapes are cold macerated for 21 days. Seventy percent of the wine is aged for 10 months in French and American oak barrels, half of each. The wine is a deep red color with aromas of plums, red currants, tobacco, game, mocha and chocolate. The mouth-feel is smooth with cherry, plum and herb flavors with a sweet, spicy kick on the finish.  The tannins are light and there is just a hint of acidity. The whole package of the Tahuan Bonarda is special. Particularly for your holiday dinners. For $14.99. Happy holiday dinner, happy Bonarda, wherever it came from, happy us. Enjoy!

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