Saturday, May 24, 2008

Give Charbono A Chance

Charbono (pronounced Shar-BOE-noe) is not the new incarnation of Sonny and Cher or a steakhouse owned by the lead singer of U2. It is a grape grown mostly in California that was once thought to be related to Italy’s Dolcetto grape as well as mistaken for Italy’s Barbera grape. You can see where these errors came from as some of the examples of Charbono sampled recently by Winemonkey and I tasted like a cross between Barbera and Dolcetto with some distinct traces of Spanish Rioja thrown in. Can you even wrap your head around that depiction?

The grape is grown on just about 85 acres of land worldwide and most of those acres are on California’s North Coast in the Napa Valley. The vines tend to be old, as advanced as 70-80 years, and the Charbono grape itself is notoriously difficult to tame. You really need to love and respect this grape to take it on --and the producers we met at a recent luncheon of the Wine Media Guild in New York proved just that.

We were lucky enough to taste Charbono from Pacific Star, On the Edge (owned by the Calistoga-born, famed and now-retired NFL Coach Dick Vermeil), Oakstone, Heitz, Robert Foley, Joseph Laurence, Duxoup, August Briggs, Summers Estate, Turley, Tofanelli, Schrader, Chameleon Cellars, Fortino Vineyard and Boeger Vineayrds. This bunch pretty much covers all of the California wineries embracing the grape to date. We could sense their passion for this enigmatic grape as they spoke about their wines (that is when we were not being blinded and awed by Vermeil’s ginormous Super Bowl Ring.)

Generally speaking the grape is high in acid and a bit rustic, but with much more depth and drinkability than we had imagined. Charbono takes to wood easily, so the judicious use of oak we see used with many other California red grapes needs to be restrained for the best results. Although the fruits we tasted in the wines were all over the map, dark berries seemed to predominate, especially blueberry, along with dark plum. We found some pretty scents of roses emanating from this otherwise dark and mysterious wine.

The wines went surprising well with the progression of foods we were served at the wonderful Felidia restaurant in Midtown Manhattan which included a salad, a risotto, and braised beef course. My guess is that if you try the right Charbono with a rustic, hearty meat course you will be duly impressed.

Our personal favorites on the day were the Charbonos and blends (Charbono/Barbera) from Pacific Star Winery (note that this style is more reminiscent of Bordeaux), the Rose and Estate Lemley Ranch Red from Oakstone Cellars, and the Robert Foley Vineyards Charbono. These wines are difficult, if not impossible, to find at retail but of the producers Robert Foley is the most widely distributed.

Not to worry, we will be carrying some examples of this unique grape at California Wine Merchants when the store opens in Lower Manhattan in (fingers crossed people!) August 2008. Cheers!

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