Back in the late 1950s there was a brash, impetuous young actor named James Dean who played rowdy, undisciplined adolescent roles in films like "Rebel Without A Cause." Charbono has the same defiant, rebellious nature that Dean brought to the Silver Screen. Its rich darkness, acidic nature, and aggressive behavior make it reckless and difficult to manage - in the same manner as James Dean.
Charbono is a somewhat rare vinifera grape whose origins are thought to be the Savoie region of eastern France. Professor Carole Meredith has determined, through DNA testing at U. C. Davis that Charbono is in fact the same grape as Corbeau, Douce Noir, or Charbonneau found in Savoie. There is also speculation that Charbono is closely related to the Dolcetto grape of northwestern Italy's Piemonte region. While the Italians don't produce a Charbono wine, the grape is found in Piemonte Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards.
In Argentina, Charbono is called Bonarda and is the second most planted grape in the country. Vines were brought to Argentina by northern Italian immigrants from the Veneto region who called the grape Croatina. By whatever name, the Argentines use Charbono/Bonarda as a blending wine to enhance color, acidity and structure.
Most likely, Charbono was imported into California from the French Jara region by pioneer Sonoma winegrower John H. Drummond and Santa Clara grower J.B.J. Portal in the mid 1870s. The variety didn't get off to a particularly good start in the state as it was often blamed for the "mediocre" quality of California wines in the 1880s. In 1884 for example, early Livermore viticulturalist and journalist Charles A. Wetmore condemned Charbono by saying, "Those who desire to produce only high-grade wines should not plant this variety."
The problem took care of itself when most of California's Charbono didn't survive the devastating phylloxera epidemic that hit the state at the turn of the century. But the tale of Charbono doesn't end here. In the 1930s, the famous Inglenook winery
in Napa Valley's Rutherford area was producing award-winning wines from what was thought to be Barbera. But that was not the case as determined by noted U. C. professor Albert Winkler. After careful study of Inglenook's vines, Professor Winkler determined that they were not Barbera but - Charbono.
It is still pretty hard to find Charbono in California today. According to state agricultural statistics, there are 76 acres of Charbono in the state producing a 2006 crush of 335 tons. Most of this acreage is in Napa and Mendocino counties but there was 15.5 tons of Charbono crushed from two acres in El Dorado county and seven acres in Santa Clara county in 2006.
Charbono likes warm days and cool nights. It is an early ripener which accounts for its acidic character. Round, moderately sized, deep purple grapes grow in relatively small bunches. The vines are moderately vigorous but subject to fungal disease. Occasionally, Charbono grafted to some phylloxera resistance rootstocks can drop ripened clusters prior to harvest.
Charbono wines are not for the timid. They tend to be big and rambunctious but in a very appealing way. Charbono comes from the Latin "Carbonarius" meaning "make of wood coal" so you might expect the wine to be inky dark in color with a tendency toward earthy, meaty, leathery, herbal aromas and flavors of roasted plum, dried cherry, licorice, and clove. Intense and complex, Charbonos are amply tannic, full-bodied and bold with a long-lasting expresso-like finish. While Charbono pairs nicely with most meats and red-sauce pasta dishes, this brawny wine really shows its stuff with more exotic dishes like venison, boar, and curried lamb.
Defiant, rebellious, and rowdy, Charbono has survived criticism and disease to remain one of California's unique and rare wine personalities. James Dean would have been proud.
Napa Valley - Calistoga
Summers Estate Charbono
Tofanelli Family Vineyard Charbono