Asked to name the top grape in Argentina, surely you boldly bellowed “bonarda!”

Wait… you mumbled “malbec”?

Until few years ago, the correct answer was bonarda. Malbec only recently overtook Argentine acreage and front-of-mind awareness.

Bonarda? What is that?

No easy answer. Some believe the red grape is a variety called charbono in California and carbeau in France. Three Italian grapes carry bonarda name: bonarda Piemontese, bonarda Novarese, and bonarda Oltrepò Pavese (which actually is croatina, by the way).

Heh, you think wine should be as easy as chard, cab, white zin?

With Argentina’s strong Italian connections, it is likely Argentine bonarda is one of the Italian bonardas, although Argentina’s National Institute of Vitiviniculture [cq] is adamant their bonarda is not bonarda Oltrepò Pavese/croatina. Let’s just make that clear, if you thought otherwise.

Bonarda typically is lighter-bodied, fruity, overflowing with cherry and plum flavor, with light tannins and moderate acidity. Easy to grow, last to harvest, Argentines traditionally used bonarda to produce bulk wines and as a blending grape.

As Argentines labored to get most out of their vineyards, however, they discovered when they aged fruit of older bonarda vines in oak they got a dense, deeply colored, big, fruity, tannic wine with spice, raisin and fig notes. No jug or box wine now.

Even when coaxed along in oak from old vines, however, bonarda does not lose its working-class roots. It is not complex, does not soar to some malbec heights. Still, bonarda is well worth a try as you savor seemingly endless possibilities of wine enjoyment.


  • Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec 2009 (10% bonarda). Black cherry, nice spice, savory, jammy, delicious; long finish; smooth value winner. $14
  • Susana Balbo Signature Mendoza Malbec 2009 (5% cab). Dry, jammy black & blue berries, raspberry, cherry, mocha, spice; full-body, plush; tangy acid. Taste difference between two types of Malbec blends from same maker. $24
  •     Bodegas Alma Negra Red Blend 2009 (85% bonarda, 15% malbec). Lush cherries, red berries; oaky, good acidity; smooth, medium body, balance; nice value from exotic Argentine producer. $23