Is it Italian or French?

Is the wine a unique ancient varietal?

Or, is it the same grape as Argentina’s Bonarda or maybe a genetic cousin?

Charbono, a grape most have never heard of, is making a small comeback. It wasn’t long ago that U.S. plantings had dwindled to about 10 acres. The latest available statistics show Charbono’s plantings have grown to 80 acres, all in California.

As written here before, one of the great experiences in wine enjoyment is trying new wines. It won’t be easy to find a Charbono but it is worth the effort. The wine is a very inky, dark purple with a rich red-fruit flavor. Cherry and raspberry dominate the palate with a bit of spice on the finish. The tannins, or finish, tend to be quite smooth.

The grape is interesting because of its confusing heritage. The grape was once thought to be related to Italy’s little Dolcetto grape from Piedmont. But it actually comes from the Savoie region in France. That explains how the grape migrated to Argentina along with Malbec.

The ancestral trail was tracked down by Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis. Researchers there, the most prestigious U.S. research college for wine grapes, determined Charbono was the same grape as Bonarda and mostly likely the same grape under the names of Corbeau, Douce Noire, or Charbonneau.

Sally Ottoson, Pacific Star Winery

There is quite a bit of Charbono grown around Calistoga in Napa Valley and some in Mendocino County. Names you might look for include: August Briggs, Turley, Chameleon, Shypoke, Joseph Laurence Shypoke, Robert Foley, Saddleback, Dunnewood, Tofanelli, Fortino, and Consentino Heitz. The wine tends to retail in the high teens to the low $30 range.

“All the winemakers in California who are bottling it have to fight over the grapes,” Sally Ottoson, Pacific Star Winery told “But back in the ‘70’s Inglenook was doing a Charbono, and so was Parducci.

“John Parducci was really a mentor for me. I think Charbono is a very universal wine. It’s not too tannic and not too acidic — a real food friendly wine. People always ask me to describe the grape’s characteristics, but that’s a difficult thing to do because it doesn’t have a distinct flavor profile like other grapes. So I like to say, it’s like an old woman who puts perfume in the same spot every day and it kind of sinks into her skin and you get this essence that evokes memories.”

I met Sally during a press wine trip to Mendocino in January. Her stunning location on the rocky Pacific shore about 12 miles north of Fort Bragg is worth the trip alone. She makes a wide variety of wines and has worked in California wine since 1972.

Her winemaking style is blend-o-holic. “I like to add a little bit of this to a little bit of that,” she said during that visit. “We make a huge effort to make wine fun. Don’t agonize over it. I make wine the old-fashioned way. I make wine in barrels.”

During the same trip I met Maria Martinson of Testa House winery. Her family settled in California in the very early 1900s as Italian immigrants. She had a beautiful Charbono that was not yet released. We tasted the fifth generation winemaker’s juice straight from the barrel.

Finding Charbono might be a challenge in the Midwest. But you can usually find a good Argentinian Bonarda at better wine shops.

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