A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Charbono - Napa, California

One of my favorite posts to write was about the Argentine grape Bonarda, mostly because it was a fascinating subject to research, but also because of that post, I ended up with some excellent information from an Argentine winery about Bonarda's true identity.  I've been to several tastings that have featured Argentine Bonarda since I wrote that and have heard it repeated many times that Italian Bonarda and Argentine Bonarda are one and the same grape (it's also still a widely spread bit of misinformation online as well).  As I discovered in researching the Bonarda and the  Sangue di Giuda posts, there are several different Italian Bonardas, and it seemed very unlikely that any of them were the same as the Argentine variety.  I had pretty much decided for myself that Charbono and Bonarda were the same grape, but I had the wrong Charbono pegged (there are two, one French and one Italian), as my friend from Argentina politely pointed out to me.  If only I had written about California Charbono first, those other posts may have been a bit better informed, but I guess I just happened to find the bottles in the wrong order.  Sometimes the path to discovery is a winding road.  I now have sampled a bottle of California Charbono and in researching it, seem to have finally gotten to the bottom of just what the heck Bonarda, and Charbono for that matter, really is.

It is now thought that Charbono came to California in the 1800's, though just how isn't really clear.  There are some who think it was brought over by a couple of Sonoma winegrowers directly from France in the 1870's.  Others believe that the wine was imported into the US as Barbera by Italian immigrants and the vines were planted and sold as Barbera wines (to some acclaim, as these Barbera bottlings won several medals).  The Barbera mix-up story seems to be the most widely disseminated version and seems to have a bit more evidence behind it.  It was only in the 1930's and 1940's that two UC Davis professors (one of whom was Harold Olmo creator of the Symphony grape) figured out that what was planted as Barbera in many California vineyards, particularly Inglenook, were actually Charbono.  Shortly after the discovery, Inglenook produced the first varietally labeled Charbono in 1941.

But what the heck is Charbono?  As mentioned in the Bonarda post, there is an Italian Charbono and a French Charbono which are unrelated to one another.  Genetic testing done in 1999 confirmed that California Charbono is the same grape as the French Charbono, better known in France as Corbeau aka Douce Noire aka Charbonneau.  It was thought for many years that Charbono and Dolcetto from Piemonte in Italy were the same grape or were at least related somehow, but genetic evidence seems to indicate that this isn't the case.  The common reason given for the confusion is that one of the French names for Charbono, Douce Noire, means "sweet black," and one of the synonyms for Dolcetto in Italy is Dolce Nero, which means the same thing.  That sounds pretty flimsy to me, but that's the story people are telling.  In any case, since independent testing has shown that California Charbono is actually Corbeau and Argentine Bonarda is actually Corbeau, simple logic tells us that California Charbono is the same grape as Argentine Bonarda and is not the same as any of the Italian Bonardas (Croatina, Uva Rara or Bonarda Piemontese), since none of those grapes are identical to Corbeau.

It's funny, though, because the California producers aren't exactly rushing to embrace the Argentine Bonarda connection.  In an article profiling California Charbono producers in Wine Business Monthly, the writer says "the really interesting fact is that Charbono as a varietal wine is produced only in California," which is technically correct since it is bottled as Bonarda in Argentina, but Argentina is not even mentioned in that article, though there are numerous references to the alleged French and Italian connections.  In fact, if you visit the web pages of the wineries listed in the article, not a single one of them mentions Argentina, but they are pretty much all excited to tell you about how few acres of Charbono there are in the world and how they're one of the few producers who bottle it.  Technically they're right, but it's a dishonest technicality based on the fact that the grape is only known as Charbono in California, so yes, there are technically fewer than 100 hectares of Charbono in the world, and yes, technically Charbono is only grown in California.  Because the grape is known as Bonarda in Argentina and Corbeau in France, if they call it Charbono then they're not actually lying when they say those things.  The reality is that Corbeau was not rescued from the brink of extinction by the California winegrowers and it's not some cult grape produced from minuscule holdings in California because it was and is alive and well down in Argentina and there's quite a bit of it being made.

There are a few possible explanations for this silence on the producers.  The first (and most charitable) is that the winery owners and winemakers are simply unaware of the connection between the two grapes.  Given their professions (and the availability of the data), I find that a little hard to swallow.  I've been to enough wineries and spoken to enough winemakers to know that those guys know almost everything there is to know about what they're growing and vinifying.  I think it's most likely that they want to cultivate an air of exclusivity and rarity about Charbono to pique consumer interest and charge a hefty price (you can bet your bottom dollar that if Bonarda were a classic grape in Argentina and was regularly fetching hundreds of dollars a bottle or was flying off the shelf like Malbec is then we'd be hearing all about it from these producers).  Prices for California Charbono seem to be in the $30 - $50 range with the lowest price that I've seen at around $19 (I web-shopped for these as we don't get much Charbono in Massachusetts), while Argentine Bonarda I've seen from as low as $8 a bottle to as high as $25 (I'm sure there are more expensive ones, but I'm just talking about what I've personally seen in shops). The very nearly extinct Charbono is only grown on about 80 acres of land and only in California while Bonarda is the second most grown grape in Argentina.  Which one would you pay more for? 

OK, so enough preaching.  I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2004 Robert Foley Charbono for $40 from my friends over at Curtis Liquors.   In the glass, the wine was an inky, opaque purple nearly all the way out to the rim.  The depth and intensity of color was shocking for a wine that was seven years old.  The nose was very ripe and loaded with cassis, blueberries and ripe purple fruits.  On the palate the wine was fairly full bodied with nice acidity and dusty, grippy tannins.  There were blackcurrant and creme de cassis flavors along with dried blueberries, blueberry jam, smoke, ripe black cherries and blackberries.  It was very dense and layered with gooey fruit flavors but with nice smoky, earthy espresso undertones and an acidity and tannin structure that was able to hold it all together.  This is a massive wine with incredible concentration and fruit flavors that just keep coming.  If I wasn't already convinced by all of the written evidence about Charbono and Argentine Bonarda, the tasting definitely would have converted me.  Both are inky, dense wines with enormous fruit flavors balance by nice acidity and tannins.  If you like the fruit layered on pretty thick, Charbono and Bonarda are definitely wines you should check out.  If you like your wines with a little restraint and finesse, stay away because subtlety and nuance are not what these wines are about.  These are steak wines that I think could stand up to a lot of Bar-b-Que dishes as well.  It has to be something with a lot of flavor because this is going to run over delicate or lightly seasoned foods.


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Anonymous said...

Great post - just one correction: it's ARGENTINE, not Argentinian.

Fringe Wine said...

Thanks for the correction, Anonymous. I've changed the errors in this post, but I'm sure they're spread elsewhere throughout the site and I don't really have the time to track them all down. I'll definitely try to remember that for the future, though.