It’s Baffling…Bonarda (and Friends)

Bonarda is baffling. One grape—Bonarda Piemontese—may be considered the Original Bonarda or the True Bonarda…and yet there are quite a few other distinctly different grapes that (at least sometimes) go by the same name. These include Croatina, Douce Noir, and Uva Rara. Let’s take a closer look and try to unravel the mystery of Bonarda.

Bonarda Piemontese: Native to Italy’s Piedmont region, Bonarda Piemontese has been linked with the area around Turin since the 1790s. This heritage suggests that Bonarda Piemontese is the Original Bonarda and most likely the first grape to use the moniker.

Bonarda Piemontese is very sparsely planted—the latest statistics count just 540 acres/218 ha planted in Piedmont. The grape—typically used in red blends—is specifically mentioned and allowed for use in a few of the appellations of northwest Piedmont, including Colli Tortonesi DOC and Pinerolese DOC. (Several other Piedmont appellations allow for the use of Bonarda; but the regulations are unclear as to which specific version of Bonarda is intended.)

According to the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (VIVC), Bonarda Piemontese has up to 14 synonyms; of these, the ones that make the most sense include Bonarda di Asti, Bonarda di Chieri, and Bonarda Nero. In red blends, it is appreciated for its color, freshness, and ability to add a bit of softness to a wine otherwise full of edgy (often Nebbiolo-derived) tannin. If you ever happen to stumble across a varietal Bonarda Piemontese, you could expect to find a smooth, soft-tasting wine with floral aromas and fresh, fruity flavors.

Croatina (Bonarda Rovescala): Croatina is a dark-skinned red grape believed to be native to the Oltrepò Pavese area of Lombardy. It is here—in this area named after the town of Pavia across the Po—that the Croatina grape is often referred to as Bonarda Rovescala (after the tiny town of Rovescala), or simply Bonarda.

The name Croatina means Croatian Girl, and for many years it was assumed that the grape was native to the Primorska Hrvatska (Coastal Region) of Croatia. While it would have been a short trip indeed from Croatia to Northern Italy, it is now considered doubtful that the grape originated in Croatia.

What is known is that there are currently close to 8,100 acres/3,300 ha of Croatina grown throughout Northern Italy, where it is known to produce richly hued (purple/blue), mildly tannic wines with aromas of red cherry, blackberry, raspberry, and sweet spices.

Croatina is allowed for use in more than a dozen AOCs across Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto. These include Oltrepò Pavese DOC, Colli Tortonesi DOC, and Colline Novaresi DOC (among others). It is also used in the Bonarda dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC, which is required to contain a minimum of 85% Croatina.

Douce Noire (Bonarda Argentina): Douce Noire is a minor French grape, believed to be native to the Savoie Region and still planted in small amounts in this mountainous area of eastern France. In other parts of France, it is more commonly referred to as Corbeau (meaning crow, and likely referring to its dark black color).

Douce Noire is also planted—under the name Charbono—in some parts of California, particularly in Napa where it was once a specialty of the Inglenook Winery. It is believed that the grape was originally brought to California by Italian immigrants who may have introduced it as Charbonneau (a name once used in eastern France).

It is, however, Argentina where Douce Noire really shines; at last count there were over 46,000 acres/19,000 ha of Douce Noire planted in Argentina—mainly in Mendoza and San Juan. In Argentina— where it is known as (you guessed it) Bonarda—Douce Noire is used to produce red blends and fruity, easy-to-drink reds and rosés typically available at a good (value) price. It is unclear how the name Bonarda came to be used in Argentina, but it is likely that when it first arrived, the grape was thought to be of Italian origin. It has been suggested that the grape be referred to as Bonarda Argentina to avoid (further) confusion.

Uva Rara (Bonarda Novarese): Uva Rara is thought to be native to northern Italy (Piedmont and Lombardy), where it currently accounts for 1,500 acres/600 ha of vines. The name translates to rare grape and is believed to refer to the small number of grapes in each bunch rather than rarity in use.

Uva Rara is typically used in red wine blends; it can soften the tannic edge of Nebbiolo and add color and depth to wines based on Barbera or Croatina. You may find a splash of Uva Rara in the wines of the Ghemme DOCG, Gattinara DOCG, Lessona DOC, or Oltrepò Pavese DOC (among others). In addition, it is allowed for use as a varietal wine in the Colline Novaresi DOC

While you are on the lookout of these wines, be alert…you may experience a sighting of Bonarda. If you’ve read this far, you should be not at all surprised to learn that in these parts, Uva Rara is sometimes referred to as Bonarda; specifically, Bonarda Novarese.

TL/DR: Croatina, Douce Noir, and Uva Rara are sometimes referred to as Bonarda; however, they are all distinct grape varieties and not identical to nor related to Bonarda Piemontese.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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