It’s always a bubble to discover a new (ish) varietal, and a double bubble when it turns out to be a scrumptious steal. Yesterday, someone handed me a bottle of Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda, 2011—an $8 Mendoza red that further proves the Argentinian talent for taking vapid varietals and turning them into va-va-voom varietals.
A Boner For Bonarda
Having by all accounts been born in Savoie, France—that fragmented alpine appellation known for Germanesque vineyards that cling to sunny plots of slope—bonarda, locally called ‘douce noir’ (‘little sweet’), joins a roster of unusual Savoie varietals: Chignin bergeron, jacquère, altesse, mondeuse blanche and mondeuse d’Arbin. These are cultivars not widely grown outside this small pocket of southeast France and produce crisp whites and fruity, acidic reds; the climate prohibits aggressive ripening.
In Argentina, however—like malbec and torrontés—bonarda finds ideal digs, especially in Mendoza’s rain shadow, where it enjoys its preferred high altitudes (most Mendoza vineyards are planted at between 1500 and 3000 feet ASL) with a firm footing in sand-over-clay, low-salinity soil.
After malbec, in fact, bonarda is the most widely planted red wine grape in the region.
That’s a remarkable statistic when you consider that Mendoza alone produces two-thirds of Argentina’s wine output, and the acreage-to-vineyard ratio, though down from its highest levels in the 1980’s, still represents more than those of Australia and New Zealand combined—and about half of the planted vine acres in the entire United States.
That translates into an awful lot of bonarda—a wine that most Americans have never heard of.
Well, You Have Now, Damn It!
One reason why the name ‘bonarda’ does not instantly spring from the lips of Mendoza’s wine fans here in the States is that, until recently, it was rarely released as a stand-alone (by Argentina wine law, 80% of a varietally-named wine must be that grape), but instead was used as a bulk-blend addition to Argentina’s equivalent of Carlo Rossi’s Paisano. And, in fact, given a lice-picking, nose-thumbingly dysfunctional Honey Boo Boo upbringing, bonarda produces primitive, low acid plonk that deserves the sort of handled wine bottle that you’d store under your sink.
The times, they are a-changin’, though: According to Leticia Blanco of Luigi Bosca, a major winery in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza, ‘Bonarda has taken a beating as a trash grape. It’s been alienated for years as a jug wine, but it’s finally getting its reputation back.’
Recently—at least to those of us north-of-the-border—an upsurge of concentrated bonarda from older vines has become available, and this stuff can be remarkable. The identical terroir phenomenon that occurs with torrontés—wherein a reasonably drinkable Spanish white develops all sorts of intriguing and newfangled nuances in the dry South American air—happens to bonarda. Nothing too mysterious about it; bonarda is a late-ripening grape, and in fact is one of the last varietal to be picked in Argentina. The beauty part of growing vines in even-climate, desert-like conditions comes with irrigation, where harvest can be based solely on ripeness. This is a luxury that France cannot offer.
The other advantage to irrigation farming is that you can produce huge quantities of grapes, and as a result, in general, wines tend to be priced to move. Such appears to be the case with old vine bonarda, which peaks at about $15 a bottle.
Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda, 2011
Hauling down 87 points, CLL Bonarda, 2010—the wine with the elongated rabbit on the label—was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Week on July 2 of this year. Never got a chance to sample that vintage, but based on the description given by WS critic Nathan Wesley, the profile is similar—and no wonder: A third advantage to the drip-irrigation method * is that vintages remain somewhat identical.
*It should be pointed out that there are plenty of fault-finding folks who fooey this method of watering, since, if misused to increase yields, it can result in overly-manipulated, terroir-free, characterless wines. In fact, EU wines laws have utterly forbidden irrigation until fairly recently. Still, plenty of viticultural areas which produce world-class wines would be unable to even grow Rossi Paisano quality product without real-time monitoring of soil and vine moisture—and that includes Washington, Australia, Lebanon and much of California.
In any case, so long as irrigation is well-managed and kept to the minimum level required to promote development while staving off water stress, there is no reason why it should not be an effective tool in producing deep, complex wines.
For my money (little as it ultimately proves to be), Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda is one such example. Fruity, dense and tannic, the wine shows a spicy, mineral nose backed by tarry plum and licorice. A bit restrained upon opening, it should wake up within fifteen minutes and become rather effusive—juicy raspberry, blackberry and more of that fleeting licorice flavor which often comes from the barrel, but which I believe in this case is a component of the grape itself, like the sweet tannins. There’s also an interesting, unmistakable tone of Junior Mint and cherry Jolly Rancher, making this a wine for the whole fam damnly.
…Making it ideal for Honey Boo Boo night on TLC—The Lard-Lover’s Channel (fortunately, bonarda goes well with crackers)—or at very least, for reruns of The Cher Show, starring the grape’s true namesake, Cher Bono.