Beyond the traditional use for blends, Bonarda produces fairly nondescript wines. Only older vines produce enough concentration for intriguing wines. However, Bonarda possesses a meaty quality in these examples that proves too much for many people. Sometimes the meatiness can edge over into wild animal and bloody aromas (like a butcher shop, not roadkill). Much like Pinotage (another day, another story) Bonarda has a bad reputation for many wine drinkers; while I will admit there are poor examples of both grapes in the market, I think the reputation is much worse than reality.
In South Africa, home of Pinotage, they eat a lot of meat, sometimes fairly exotic, that gets braaied (Afrikaans for barbequed). Pinotage pairs wonderfully with those meals. The same is true of Argentina. They grill a lot of steak and Bonarda matches up well. I quite like Pinotage and Bonarda, and although I realize that leaves me in the minority, I truly believe that more wineries are learning how to handle the varieties and that quality will continue to improve. Try some of my recommendations, if you don't like them, don't bother with the variety anymore.
La Linda Bonarda 2006 - Maipu, in Mendoza, is the source for this wine, more specifically, a vineyard located at 2,560 feet elevation. It spent 6 months in American oak, some clearly new. Other tasters had moderate reactions to this wine, 'unexciting', a smiley face, while one simply wrote 'who cares' next to the Bonarda based wines and moved to Cabernet. I loved it! I found this example to be juicy, meaty (as expected) and gulpable. The vines are about 30 years old and it makes a difference. More depth, more complexity, more richness, all shine through. The wine is not huge by any means, but the distinct meaty quality here lends itself to grilled red meat, especially lamb, and wild game sausages. It will work beautifully with harder cheeses too, particularly aged Goudas. 2nd day - Still nice, plummy and juicy, with a bit of greenness showing on the nose. The acidity stayed bright and the meat note carried through as well, a la Pinotage but prettier than those can be. 3rd day - Meaty and still a little 'bloody', although the finish faded a bit today, the wine remains eminently drinkable. I like this wine. Importer - Gaucho Imports. $9-$11.
Gouguenheim Bonarda/Syrah 2006 - From Tupungato in Mendoza, located at 3,600 feet, this wine is a 50/50 blend (as best I can figure). French oak is used for three months, but only the inner staves so I assume the aging takes place in steel tanks with the oak staves inserted. Gouguenheim is a family run winery that produces excellent values. This blend, presumably to add weight and darker fruit to the Bonarda, offered sweet, deep, ripe, fruit with an emphasis on red fruits. It proved to be tasty, good not great. 2nd day - Sweeter than La Linda, solid, juicy and very drinkable. In short, a crowd pleaser. 3rd day - A bit of clay is now appearing on the aroma, still some meatiness, but much less pronounced. The acidity is still fresh and the wine continues to show juicy fruit - still well done. Don't hesitate to use this one at a BBQ with friends (or even some enemies), they'll enjoy it, it will work with burgers, hot dogs, sausages, etc. The unusual Bonarda grape will spark conversation and only a select few will be smart enough to know you spent so little. Importer - Various, check their website for your state. Although I do believe this is out of date since I am fairly certain Pinnacle no longer represents them. http://www.bodegagouguenheim.com.ar/ $8-$10
Benegas Don Tiburcio Blend 2003 - This is a classic example of the value offered in Argentina. Although I was not crazy about the wine, a similar blend made with the same level of care by consultant Michel Rolland nearly anywhere else in the world would sell for at least two to three times the price. Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot make up the blend that was aged in French oak for 18 months. It is one of Benegas' flagship wines, named after the patriarch of the estate. Smoky aromas, no doubt from the oak, shine on the nose and the wine is pleasantly big in the mouth if a tad too chewy on the back end - perhaps too much extracted wood tannin? I liked it well enough, but overall found the dryness on the back end to be too much for me. We were eating a variety of cheeses and cured meats, perhaps a big juicy steak would mitigate those tannins. 2nd day - Sweet oak on the nose, and now the palate too, better today, more accessible, but still a touch gritty on the finish. The palate feel is all old world Bordeaux, with bigger, rounder fruit than they could ever hope to achieve. 3rd day - As is often the case with Michel Rolland's wines, this one died between day two and today. He extracts fruit and manipulates juice to achieve a certain style - big, intense and full of flashy dark fruit and oak. However, a price is paid, the wine loses some of its liveliness. I'll put together a post to discuss this further somewhere down the road. Overall, if you love Bordeaux for a better price, buy this, decant it and serve it with red meat; you will likely be quite pleased. Importer - Pinnacle International. $14-$16.
I'll touch on a few Cabernet Sauvignons here to get us started since we tasted ten of them and it will make the next post a more manageable size. There will be an introduction to Cabernet in Argentina to start the next edition.
Norton Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - This winery, along with Trapiche, led the charge bringing Argentina to the U.S. We stocked wines from each winery at Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans as early as 1994 or 1995, even before much attention was being paid to values from Spain, much less Argentina. They became the benchmark for evaluating other Argentine producers since we knew them and they were established in the market. How do they fare now? From Lujan de Cuyo in Mendoza, this wine is 100% Cabernet; I have no idea of oak treatment. My notes, verbatim, "gritty, dirty, lacking." 2nd day - More fruit today, but still pretty terrible. Other tasters agreed, offering a frowning face and this gem of a comment, "tastes treated." Granted, this is their introductory level, and it is inexpensive, but I can't imagine anyone drinking this willingly. AVOID! Importer - TGIC Importers. $7-$10
Trapiche Oak Cask Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - Again, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, again, Mendoza, but the website is lacking any real information about this wine. Sweet, deep cedar note on the nose, this is a solid red fruited Cabernet. 2nd day - Sweet cherry fruit and cedar today, I say well done. There is a hint of some unbalanced acid, like they added some in powder form, but overall this is solid. Not a great bottle of wine, and certainly not a blockbuster Cabernet style, but tasty enough, widely available and mostly worth the price. Unlike the Norton, this elicited an 'I dig the nose' from another taster. Importer - Frederick Wildman & Sons. $9-$12
Next - More Cabernet and some thoughts about this variety in Argentina.