Talk long enough about Bonarda and you'll hear all the keywords of ill-repute. High yield. Simple. Jug. Bulk.
Once Argentina's most widely planted variety (it recently lost the honor to Malbec), Bonarda has long been plied for fruity, anonymous juice -- the kind sold by the ton or blended into oblivion. Even its defenders cite the received wisdom that Bonarda could never be age-worthy, that it will always want for Malbec's complexity.
There's one problem with writing off Bonarda in total, though: It's delicious.
"Bonarda always has good color and sweet tannins," says Sebastian San Martin, chief winemaker for Argento, in Mendoza. "If you control the yield in the vineyard, you can get very good wine." At its most basic, Bonarda has a bright, informal, fruity nose and a striking purple-scarlet hue; want nothing more from it and it will give up aromatic juice that can add character to a Malbec blend. Take it more seriously, though -- work with old vines, aim for quality over quantity -- and Bonarda will show deep, soft, beautiful flavors of raspberry and plum, earth and leather.
Bonarda's image problems begin at the beginning, with its hazy and long-disputed origins. Over the years, Bonarda has been mistaken as a relative of Dolcetto, and more recently assumed to be the same as Bonarda Piemontese, a similarly fruity wine grown near Turin. Genetic studies now show that Argentine Bonarda is in fact the same as Charbono, aka Corbeau, a French grape that once performed for California, and has since gone nearly extinct. In South America, Bonarda's been present for as long as anyone can remember, and given its abundance and robustness, its been a workhorse the whole time.
"Bonarda has taken a beating as a trash grape," says Leticia Blanco, of Luigi Bosca, a prominent winery in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza. "It's been alienated for years as a jug wine, but it's finally getting its reputation back." Luigi Bosca has a tasty, entry-level Bonarda in its casual-drinking line (aimed at wooing younger drinkers away from beer), but when the conversation turns to serious examples of Bonarda, nearly everyone points to Nieto Senetiner, a winery just up the street. Here, winemaker Roberto Gonzalez works with old vines to create a special-edition Bonarda of such elegance and complexity, it shuts down the argument that the varietal will always take a back seat to Malbec in terms of flavor.
While a handful of Mendoza-based wineries have expanded their portfolios to include a Bonarda or two, its true home region in Argentina lies about 100 miles north, in San Juan. Traditionally a bulk wine region, San Juan lacks the glamour of Mendoza; the wineries and vineyards here don't yet have the same visitor-attracting amenities, nor the general cache. What they do have is Bonarda, and lots of it, stretching out alongside Syrah, Cabernet, and pistachio groves.
"I strongly believe in the near future, when buyers are ready to explore from Malbec, they'll switch to Bonarda," says Guillermo Mercado, enologist at Graffigna. "It's a feeling in the whole country that Bonarda is going to take off. And when Bonarda takes off, San Juan will be the flagship region."
2007 Trapiche Broquel Bonarda
Deep purple-red hue with soft, quietly enticing red fruit aromas off the top; sweet and downright pretty in the mouth, all juicy cherry and ripe strawberry over a very subtle vanilla spine.
2007 Bodegas Nieto Senetiner - Bonarda Reserva
Beautiful and serious, even on the nose. The richly concentrated, earthy red fruit flavors are shot through with a bit of violet, rose, and dark chocolate. This has the body and complexity to stand up to roasted meats, and to anyone who argues that Bonardas fail to meet Malbec standards.
2008 Bodega Alta Vista Bonarda
Lovely and very simple in the right ways, it’s an informal, all-red-fruit affair (raspberry, crushed cherries) that plays nicely as a cocktail wine.
2007 Bodega Luigi Bosca Finca La Linda Bonarda
You wouldn’t have to be told that this is designed for younger, newer wine drinkers. It’s a massive, tasty strawberry-bomb, with tons of sour cherry, blue berry and sticky tannins on the finish.
2009 Callia Bonarda (Not yet bottled)
Sweet strawberry aromas are followed by mineral-laced, juicy red and pink fruit. Mouth-watering acidity, super-soft, almost non-existent tannins.
2009 Altos Los Hormigas Colonia Las Liebres
Brilliant dark ruby in the glass, raspberry, cherry and strawberry permeate from the nose through to the finish, but everything’s smartly balanced to avoid fruit-bomb territory.