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Bonarda offers fresh flavor and deep color

Most of us have never heard of bonarda. Until a few years ago it was Argentina's leading variety. So how does a grape that makes up so much of the South American landscape suffer with such obscurity? Bonarda is used to boost the flavor and color of Argentina's most acclaimed variety, malbec. Lately, bonarda is showing up in some interesting blends and in some solo presentations as well.

Bonarda's heritage is not clear. Many say it comes from Piedmont, Italy. It has been associated with croatina, Bonarda Piemontese, barbera bonarda, and charbono. U.C. Davis, our premier viticultural university has been investigating its roots, but has yet to come up with an exact lineage for this grape.

Argentina experienced a mass influx of Italians at the turn of the twentieth century. There are areas in Argentina that are indistinguishable from an Italian village. Argentina's population grew by over 30% during these years and a majority of this growth came from Western Europe. These immigrants not only brought their culture but brought the beloved grapes of their homeland, whose names may have changed and homogenized as trade secrets and vineyards were handed down over generations.

Regardless of where it came from, the critics are touting the contemporary version of bonarda. Susan Balbo, one of Argentina's most talented winemakers, blends syrah and bonarda together under her Crios label ($15). The Crios Sy-Bo is a berry-packed, spicy blend, with nuances of smoked meats and roses. Tikal Patriota, a 60% bonarda, 40% malbec blend ($27), serves as a worthy tribute to the two varieties that have defined Argentinean wines with its smoldering flavors of blackberries, roasted spices, and cocoa.

Estela Armando can trace her bonarda directly back to Piedmont and the croatina grape. It was her great-grandfather who planted the first vineyards on her land almost 120 years ago, one year after his arrival from Northern Italy. Her La Posta del Viņatero Bonarda ($17) is packed with flavors of fresh raspberries, bitter chocolate, and smoke. These bonarda vines are about forty years old and are hand picked to insure the grapes are at the utmost ripeness. A mere 1,900 cases of this wine was produced from the 2003 vintage.

Alamos Bonarda comes from famed winemaker Nicolas Catena, whose roots in Argentina trace back to the Italian immigration of the late 1800s. Alamos Bonarda comes from Bodega Catena's Zapata vineyards in Mendoza. These high altitude vineyards enjoy warm days and cool nights, which ensures an extraordinary value for its $12 price.

Most bottles of bonarda, like their Italian cousins, have a touch of structure and a generous dose of acidity making them great choices for hearty foods. Bottles of Bonarda are scarce, but their quality and value make them worth seeking out.

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