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Grape Relations in the New World

The term “terroir” has caught on. It is trotted out by wine snobs now to describe characteristics that frequently have little to do with actual terroir. In France, the term is used to refer to vineyards that share a soil makeup, microclimate, elevation and drainage characteristics that contribute to a shared personality of a particular regional wine.

However, because Americans have been varietal trained, they tend to think more about what grape is in the glass, than the conditions under which it is grown. I once overheard someone in a restaurant describe a wine as having a “classic Cabernet terroir.” If you pardon the pun, I was overcome by a desire to wage a personal war on terroirism.

The Napa Valley alone has several distinct Cabernet “flavors” that can be identified even by neophyte wine drinkers when the effect of a particular terroir is explained and then the wines are placed side-by-side in a blind tasting. And, of course, the state of California has Cabernet Sauvignon growing in other locations with conditions that differ greatly from Napa. Then consider red Bordeaux. These Cabernet-dominated wines are nothing like a “typical” Napa Cabernet, from any of the sub-appellations in the Napa Valley.

Speaking of Bordeaux, this region legally permits winemakers to use any of six grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Carménère and Malbec. Today Carménère and Malbec are rarely used. Château Clerc Milon is the only wine I know using Carménère and I can think of no Château in Bordeaux still growing Malbec.

Generally speaking, Cabernet Sauvignon (the second-most planted variety in the Bordeaux region) dominates the red blends produced on the Médoc peninsula. While house styles vary widely, a typical top-flight Bordeaux blend is generally 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc in the Medoc; while across the river in Saint-Émilion and Pomeral the ratio of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are inverted, with Merlot dominating the wines in all but a few exceptions.

Unlike America, where a winery can grow any grape they wish as long as they label the wines accordingly; in France the law prohibits making wine from grapes that have been deemed unworthy of that particular region as proven by centuries of trial and error. Had this logic been applied to Napa, Cabernet would likely have been a prohibited grape variety. The region is simply too warm for it. That does not mean that Napa Cabs (and meritage wines) are bad, it just means that they are just nothing like the wines of Bordeaux.

This leads me to the real point of my post: Over time the terroir actually changes the grapes themselves. The specific microclimate and chemical composition of the soil mutates the grapes, and their progeny evolve genetically into something else. This is the reason the origin of Zinfandel and the “Mission” grape (which I have profiled in earlier columns) were so hard to for botanists to identify. They were literally transformed by their new homeland.

So, lets go back to Bordeaux. What happened to Carménère and Malbec? Why did Bordelaise winemakers abandon them? It’s hard to say really, but quite likely – just like any relationship gone wrong – they had changed. But unlike an unsuitable paramour, when a grape vine becomes undesirable it is simply torn out and replanted with something tastier. Okay, perhaps there is no difference between love and viticulture gone wrong.

In the case of Malbec, this led to its virtual extinction in the Bordeaux region. Although the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (the French legal designation that mean “controlled designation of origin”) allows for the use of Malbec in Bordeaux, no self-respecting Bordeaux winemaker would consider including it in the wines.

In addition, Malbec is susceptible to many vine ailments (Coulure, downy mildew and cold sensitivity.) A severe frost in 1956 frost wiped out a significant portion of Malbec vines in Bordeaux, allowing many growers to take this opportunity to start over with more appealing varieties.

Just to be clear, Malbec is still grown in other parts of France. Most notably in Cahors, a region just south of Bordeaux where the grape is called Auxerrois or Côt Noir. There it’s blended with Merlot and Tannat. But, to make things even more confusing, the Malbec grape is grown under many pseudonyms in other regions of France. As I mentioned in an earlier column, the French ampelographer, Pierre Galet, has documented over a thousand names for Malbec.

In Argentina, Malbec is the most widely planted grape in the country, and it has become the de-facto “national variety.” Malbec was first introduced to Argentina in the mid 19th century when the provincial governor asked agronomist, Miguel Pouget, to bring vine cutting from France. The variety caught on, making Pouget as important to South American viticulture as Agoston Haraszthy is to North American winemaking.

Today, Argentine Malbec is physically different from its French relative. The Argentine vines produce smaller, tighter clusters with smaller berries. Wines from Argentine Malbec are characterized by deep color and a lush, jammy character without the tannic structure of French Malbec. Botanical historians speculate that cuttings brought by Pouget and later French immigrants were a unique clone that may have become extinct in France due to frost or the phylloxera epidemic. I think the variety simply mutated and adapted to its new environment just as Zinfandel did in California.

It is interesting to note that the second-most planted grape variety in Argentina – Bonarda – has a similar history.  Bonarda, which likely has the same ancestors as the Californian grape Charbono, is believed to have been brought to the U.S. by Italian immigrants in the 19th century. In Piedmont, there are three different grapes with the Bonarda name, and no one knew which one originally made its way to Argentina. The most likely contenders were either Bonarda Piemontese or Bonarda Novarese, known as Uva Rara, or “the rare grape” – an appropriate name since Bonarda has pretty much disappeared from Italy.

Prior to the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century, Bonarda probably accounted for 30% of the plantings in Piedmont. Today, scattered plantings can be found only along the left bank of the Tanaro River near Govone. According to Jancis Robinson, the Bonarda grape experienced a slight revival in the mid 1990s, when some Piedmontese producers sought to add aromatics to their Barbera wines by blending in Bonarda. A great idea that apparently did not catch on.

As it turns out, Argentine-Bonarda actually shows the strongest genetic similarity to the grape variety Corbeau that is believed to have originated in the Savoie region of France. According to an article in The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, “All the Argentine-Bonarda accessions were identical in their SSR [genotype] profiles to the French Corbeau, indicating, with a high confidence level, that they are the same variety.” Many ampelographers believe California Charbono has the same origin as this grape. Coincidentally, Charbono is commonly found mixed in with Dolcetto and Barbera vines in Italian vineyards. However, no wine labeled Charbono is actually produced in Italy. While in California, Charbono dates to the 1880s – about the same time “Bonarda” made its way to Argentina.

So the irony is this, quite likely some hapless Italian immigrants attempting to transplant the superior Barbera or Dolcetto grape varieties to the New World mistakenly brought cuttings of the then more prevalent Corbeau/Bonarda vines that were indiscriminately mixed into the Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards. Once in the New World, this upstart variety mutated into something altogether different.

Argentine Bonarda produces light wines with noticeable acidity. It’s a bit like the character of Italian Barbera. But Bonarda can be more aromatic, with strong scents of cherry and plum. It has light tannins and a medium level of acidity. However, Bonarda was mainly used for bulk production of table wines. Before the South American wine boom, Bonarda was the probably the most widely planted grape variety in Argentina.

This workhorse grape was popular with Argentine growers because it could provide big yields if you gave it enough water, and yet it is still be able to add color and a little fruit to low-grade varieties like Criolla. But serious winemakers largely ignored Bonarda, in favor of Malbec and Torrontés.

Bonarda was mainly used for bulk production of table wines in Argentina. However, in recent years, 100% varietal versions of Bonarda have become more popular. Many experts think that it will reach the popularity that Malbec now has. And it’s now seen more frequently showing up at professional wine tastings in Buenos Aires and Mendoza.

If you managed to endure this rambling viticultural detective story in hopes I would actually finally suggest something good to drink, you are now in luck! I persponally  think the future of Bonarda will be found in its ability to improve the overly jammy fruit-bombs that Malbec produces. There already is such a wine – Tikal, “La Patriota”.

La Patriota is a stellar example of how the acid and bouquet of one grape can balance the fruit of another to make a wine better than either grape could produce alone. Seen as a romance story, this is a remarkable tale of how a dark, acerbic gentleman going by the name of Bonarda, met an abandoned Madame Malbec of mysterious origin, thereby transforming both of these unremarkable individuals after this chance encounter in the New World. Malbec can almost be heard saying, “Señor Bonarda, you complete me.”

Tikal, “La Patriota” – Bonarda blend, (Mendoza, Argentina) ±$30

The Tikal winery is named after the son of the vineyard owner, Ernesto Catena. This particular Tikal wine was dubbed “The Patriot” because Ernesto believes that Bonarda and Malbec are the traditional core of Argentine winemaking. This wine is a blend of 60% Bonarda and 40% Malbec grown 960 meters above sea level on the Rivadavia, La Consulta and Vista Flores vineyards in the Mendoza region. The vines are 43 years old on average.

According to the winery, La Patriota has “aromas of bright berry/cherry fruit and electric-purple color” and it “pairs well with grilled meats such as beef and pork, smoked ham, and even pizza with meat toppings.” In my opinion this description does not do the wine justice. In character La Patriota is more like a top-flight Chateauneuf-du-Pape; a wine that combines a sophisticated depth of flavors with easy-drinking pleasure.


Suggestions for further reading:

The Oxford Companion to Wine, by Jancis Robinson (editor)

Vines, Grapes and Wines, by Jancis Robinson

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