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New Markham Charbono

You might not guess it, but most winemakers experiment within their wineries. It keeps the staff engaged and committed to successes that might ultimately lead to the development of exciting new wines. It might be as simple as using new equipment or barrels or perhaps the technique involves yeast, co-fermentation or extended maceration. Every so often, it might be the opportunity to work with a new vineyard or unknown grape. So it was for us about this time two years ago. A gentleman who had known former Markham president Bryan Del Bondio his entire life called to offer us a few tons of a grape during the harvest of 2014. It was a grape of which I knew in name only, but had never ever tasted. But I was aware that Bryan’s dad had success with it in the 1960s at Inglenook, and the historical significance greatly appealed to me. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure, how hard can it be?” Perhaps the prudent winemaker might have researched a bit rather than have jumped at the challenge?

Cooke vineyard circa 1909

Napa Valley native and wine industry veteran Terry Gard had recently inherited a parcel of land from his uncle in Calistoga, known as the Cooke vineyard. It had several acres of old-vine Charbono among other things planted on it. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that California currently has less than 80 acres of Charbono in production and approximately half is grown here in Napa Valley. The nearly forgotten piece of ground in Calistoga had a varied assortment of head-trained vines that (I swear) released of hints of vanilla when I was sampling fruit one day. I read a quote from winemaker Sally Ottoson, of Pacific Star Winery in Mendocino, who said the Charbono fruit character is “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 remember smelling coffeecake in the field and stopping to check myself and my clothing to make sure I wasn’t the carrier of the aroma… what a hauntingly correct description of this grape!

Charbono at Cooke Vineyard

It is believed that the grape is originally from northern Italy, which is now part of the French Alps, where it was known as Douce Noir. Today it is more widely planted in Argentina where it is referred to as Bonarda. The name Charbono we use in California comes from the dark purple juice squeezed from this thick-skinned grape, which has the appearance of carbon water or Charbonneau (the other French name for Douce Noir). According to some, the grape variety is so ancient that the Romans once called it “Carbonica.”

Cooke Grapes and Vineyard

It is not surprising that all of the Charbono grown here in Napa is planted up-valley in the Calistoga area. The heat of the area provides the necessary long growing season to bring this grape to maturity, as I have since found. All the Charbono I see planted in Calistoga was planted before 1970 and is collectively referred to as the Inglenook clone (not that I’m aware of another clonal selection). Ultimately, I knew that the right decision to experiment with Charbono was made when I found myself judging at the Sunset International Wine Competition in 2015. With our first vintage aging in barrels back at the winery, there in the hallowed cellars of the Sunset Menlo Park offices after a long day of judging, we reminisced over glasses of wine and discovered an old book full of wine labels which included the Inglenook Charbono label from 1969! I’d like to think that perhaps the grapes from which we now harvest our fruit were being planted around the time that Inglenook wine was being made.

Inglenook Charbono labels

It certainly has been a challenge to create a wine with blind bravado and maybe I will think before I leap next time, but we can’t wait for people to taste our newest experiment. The inky color somewhat belies the moderate tannin level in the wine, but the acidity levels remain high even as the sugar level in the berries stops accumulating. The resulting wine is bright and energetic with shockingly low alcohol levels. We think it will be as it was originally intended, easy to enjoy with a Sunday roast smothered in gravy. Alas, having bottled only 375 cases of our first-ever Charbono, we’ve offered it exclusively to our wine club members in their shipment this month – maybe you can talk one into sharing with you? - Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls

Read more about how our Charbono was made and Kimberlee's notes on the 2014 vintage.