Bonarda: a new Malbec?

December 21, 2010

Argentinian producers seek to position it as a variety that sets the Argentinian terroir apart. Following Malbec, it could emerge as a new star among red varieties.
“Elastic”. Winemakers use this word to define Bonarda, a red variety that used to be employed only for common wines but through low yields in the vineyard and modern winemaking techniques has become a valued varietal for premium wines and even for products with as much as 7 years of bottle aging potential. In fact, 2008 could be remembered as the year of the “re-discovery” of Bonarda, as exports of wine produced with this variety rocketed.
According to MRT data, “the monthly volumes exported were around 5000 to 6000 cases, but September broke the record with a volume higher than 8000 cases of Bonarda, while October reinforced the upward trend with a peak of over 18000 cases exported.” Even though it is still far from Malbec’s position, Argentina’s Bonarda is being warmly welcoled by consumers in the United States, Brazil, Norway, Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom, the first six destinations for this varietal.
The turning point

Some brands have become the most successful cases. Nieto Senetiner was the winery that triggered the turning point by making a super premium Bonarda wine. Roberto González, the company’s chief winemaker, claims that the winery was among the first ones to discover the virtues of this grape in 2001, with wines produced exclusive for the British market.
“Bonarda is very similar to Malbec, although it is characterized by a low tannic concentration. Moreover, it does never reach the high alcohol content of a Malbec. Bonarda wines are around 13 degrees.” The winemaker argues that the acceptance of Bonarda among Brazilian consumers and US consumers is a product of their Italian immigration. “In fact, there is Bonarda in Italy, but there is a discussion about whether it is the real Bonarda or not,” González comments.
Nieto Senetiner makes a Super Premium with this variety: Bonarda Partida Limitada, Late Harvest, included in the Don Nicanor line as well as another varietal: Nieto Senetiner Bonarda. “This wine sells quite well in the domestic market, but it lags behind the other traditional varietals in Argentina, although it has surpassed Merlot. In terms of exports, it is still behind Cabernet and Syrah but it will eventually climb up,” González predicts.
The most sold
In the export ranking of Premium Bonarda, Altos Las Hormigas concentrates 22% of FOB turnover with its Colonia Las Liebres brand. Carlos Vázquez, the director of the company founded by famous Italian “flying winemaker” Alberto Antonini, explains that it is an oak-less wine made from a “blend of grapes” from areas such as El Mirador, Agrelo, Tupungato, Ugarteche and Campamentos. Starting next year, the company will have its own production in Colonia Los Amigos, Luján de Cuyo.
Vázquez comments that they started making top range Bonarda in 2003. That wine earned 92 points in WineSpirit. “We produce few cases, some 17,000, sold at a retail price of around u$s 10. I believe we were successful because the world already knew us, as we had launched our Malbec in 1997,” he affirms.
With regard to Bonarda’s lower acceptance in the domestic market, Vázquez argues that “people look at it as a variety for common wines, but the truth is that Bonarda is very elastic.”
According to his story of the variety, it seems that Bonarda arrived in Argentina as an impure Barbera de Asti, hence it is known in the country as Barbera Bonarda.
Genetically French
The Peñaflor Group hold the first place in terms of FOB share with 25%, with three brands: Fincas Privadas (Andean Vineyards), Las Moras (Las Moras) and Broquel de Trapiche.
Daniel Pi, the Group’s chief winemaker, explains that “Bonarda exports began some five years ago. Before that, few people understood that it was a good variety. When it is well-treated, as Malbec is treated, achieving an appropriate ripening, with a good winemaking process, it produces wines of soft tannins, with lots of strawberry aromas. It is a variety whose optimal ripening point occurs towards the end of the season, with 13.5 degrees.”
An expert when talking about varieties, Pi affirms that the Argentinian Bonarda is not the same as the Italian grape. “According to research conducted by the local University, through DNA analyses, it was concluded that the Corbeau, known as Charbonno in Italy, is genetically identical to the Argentinian Bonarda.”
He adds that the Argentinian grape, as opposed to the European one, can reach a good ripening point. “When fall arrives in the Old continent there is a lot of dew and the grape rots, it has to be harvested earlier, with less alcohol content, hence achieving a different concentration compared to the Argentinian grape,” Pi comments.
Even though he admits that Bonarda is the mother of our common wines, Pi highlights that “it is a very elastic variety, even in vines with more kilos per hectare it can achieve lots of color, wines that are easy to drink. When yield is reduced, even in warmer areas, it produces concentrated wines that may be sold at higher prices.”
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