This article is part of a wine column series I write for the Northern Neck News.
Mention Argentina, and the first wine most people think of is Malbec. Because of the rise of its production in the last twenty years, Malbec and Mendoza, Argentina are almost synonymous. What many people do not realize is that Malbec has only recently become the most produced wine in this arid land. Its predecessor on the top spot of production is Bonarda, a grape that, much like Malbec, is not a native and found its way into Argentine vineyards by way of emigration in the nineteenth century.
In the midst of an economic depression that swept through Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century as a precursor to World War I, the economies of many nations took large hits that caused many to leave Europe and head for different destinations, not the least of which was South America. In Italy, a tariff war broke out between Italy and France after 1887. France liquidated their assets in Italy, causing untold damage to the newly unified Italian state. Many Italians found their way into Argentina, where there is still a large Italian population to this day. Coming into Argentina, they brought with them not only their culture, but also their grapes, most notably, the Bonarda.
Commonly known as a Piemontese grape varietal, the Bonarda grape has three different disputed points of origin. The most common of the Bonarda grapes is the Croatina, because of its Croatian origins, and is planted mainly in Otrepo Pavese and Colli Piacentini in north central Italy. There are two varieties grown in the northwestern Piedmont region, Uva Rara (Bonardo Novarese) and Bonarda Piemontese, which many refer to as the one true Bonarda.
A variety related to the French Corbeau grape, or as they say in California, Charbono, causes controversy because it is said to be the grape brought into Argentina and grown there today. Many say it is not a Bonarda at all. Others contend it is of the Bonarda family but is not from Italy. The jury is still out on this one, and there appears to be some discrimination based on regional biases.
The earliest trace of the Bonarda grape dates back 3000 years when the Etruscans planted it in the Piedmont region of Italy. Widely grown in the eastern part of France at the end of the nineteenth century, Douce Noir (sweet black), as it is called by the French and Dolcetto Nero (small sweet black) by the Italians, was said to have originated in the Savoie region of north-west Italy. This is supported by DNA evidence as well as its name which lends toward its Piedmont origins.
I discovered Bonarda while at The Caboose wine shop in Ashland. Thinking I was picking up a Malbec, I discovered when I arrived home, I had instead purchased a bottle of Bonarda wine. Upon opening it, I immediately enjoyed the aroma of dark fruit, with a touch of violet. Not an overpowering nose, the bouquet gave a preview of the taste of black raspberries and black plums that was to follow. The beauty of this amply bodied wine with its satin-like tannins and medium finish can easily be missed if the drinker does not take the time to allow it to speak to the palette, sprinkling on the tongue small hints of pepper. Made for lean meat, its taste of earthy minerality makes Bonarda a sure thing for a piece of venison, smothered in mushrooms.
For wine guys like me, the history and development of this little known wonder is fascinating, but I must say wherever it came from, Bonarda is a rich, lovely wine that must be tasted to believe.