Everything You Need to Know About Charbono
Charbono is one of those grape varieties that, despite its long history, flies under the radar in the United States. Still, there is a core group of U.S. winemakers and grape growers that are devoted to not only keeping it alive in California, but also building its reputation.
Charbono is far more widely known in Argentina, where it is the second most planted grape variety after Malbec. Yet because of Malbec's primacy, the contributions of Charbono — which is known as Bonarda in Argentina — are quiet, if significant. To fully appreciate this unique grape variety's contributions to wines around the world, check out our Charbono wine guide below.
What Is Charbono Wine?
Charbono (sometimes known as Bonarda and Douce Noir) is a grape variety whose roots trace to the Savoie region of France, where records indicate it's been grown since the early-1800s. Before that, research suggests that the Etruscans, some 3,000 years ago, worked with it. In our current world, Charbono is something of a cult favorite in Napa Valley's Calistoga. It's also a widely planted part of the wine landscape in Argentina, where it's known as Bonarda. Interestingly, its presence in current-day Savoie is relatively small in comparison.
Where Does Charbono Wine Come From?
In Argentina, though Malbec dominates the wine landscape, Charbono accounts for the next most widely planted grape variety. In 2018, the trade group Wines of Argentina reported that Bonarda took up nearly 19,000 hectares of land, or close to 46,000 acres. It's important to note, however, that though the grape variety is called Bonarda in Argentina, it is not the same as the Bonarda variety from Italy's Piedmont region. Rather, it's a relative of a variety from France's Savoie region called Corbeau Noir.
In California, Charbono is planted much more sparingly, but there are some notably old vines that are used to craft wines of fascinating character and depth. According to the trade organization Visit Calistoga, "Most of the 75 acres of Charbono planted in California are in Calistoga," adding that, "... Charbono adores Calistoga's distinctive bedrock that was formed almost exclusively through volcanic action millions of years ago. The region's hot summer days and cool nights help flavors flourish, too."
Why Should You Drink Charbono Wine?
The wine world is a wild place, with countless grape varieties finding footholds in unexpected spots. If we only drank wines produced from the most familiar varieties, our lives would be a lot less interesting. Charbono, with its ancient origins and its robust expression of the land in which it's grown, embodies this adventurous wine spirit brilliantly.
Examples from producers like Zuccardi and Susana Balbo in Argentina can be found for less than $20; enjoy them with grilled meats, cheese-and-charcuterie plates, or nothing at all(they're delicious to sip on their own.) In California, Charbono crafted from old vines tends to show greater concentration and depth, and some of them have the potential to age well, too.
What Does Charbono Taste Like?
Charbono boasts flavors that skew toward blue and brambly fruits, plums, and spice, with occasional notes of cherries thrown into the mix. Acid tends to be fairly fresh but not dominant in Charbono, and the tannins are moderately structured yet velvety, making this red food-friendly yet not requiring particularly rich foods to fully shine.
Five Great Charbono Wines
There are countless great Charbono wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect place to start exploring Charbono.
Bodegas Aleanna "El Enemigo" Bonarda
Old vines from a single vineyard contribute to this wine's appeal … and it can be found for less than $25.
El Enemigo Bonarda
From a respected Mendoza producer, this Bonarda shows the fresh side of the grape variety, along with an undertow of minerality, making it particularly enjoyable with medium-rare steak.
Familia Zuccardi "Serie A" Bonarda
The Zuccardi family produces a broad range of wines, from Malbec to Cabernet Franc and beyond. This Bonarda bottling can be found for less than $20 and is reliably generous and energetic.
Robert Foley Charbono
Foley is one of the most important producers of Charbono in California, and this bottling is, vintage after vintage, one of the more consistent and exciting.
The Prisoner Wine Co. "Headlock" Charbono
The Prisoner may be better known for its full-throttle, Zinfandel-based red blends, but this Charbono — blended with Petite Sirah and Syrah — is just as noteworthy.