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September 24, 2013
Wherefore Art Thou, Bonarda?

Buenos Aires report: At the Argentine grocery store, divide the prices by nine.



Argentines love their local wine.

According to Laura Catena, a member of one of Argentina’s leading winemaking families*, her countrymen drink almost as much wine per capita as the Italians and the French … and she says that proudly. It may sound ambitious, but step inside any grocery store in Buenos Aires and you’ll see the proof. Street vendors excepted, every food retailer in the city, from Taiwanese family-owed corner stores to the multi-national, corporate grocery chains, have dedicated a generous 1/3 of their floor space to selling wine to their customers.

The store flyers advertising the daily wine bargains get more eager attention from shoppers than those listing the food. Just read the prices and weep. Most of the entry-level labels (from excellent, reputable wineries) are priced in the 3 to 6 Cdn dollar range**, and even if you’re feeling flush and want to blow as much as 10 bucks, you really have to work at it. As an alternative, the independent wine stores do stock the Parker-approved, higher-end ranges, but even there, it’s amusing to see bottles priced at the equivalent of $15-16 Cdn being kept under lock and key for added security.

At both the supermarkets and the specialty stores, wines are separated by varietal. Thus you’ll find separate shelves for Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonney, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier, etc. Of course Malbec, Argentina’s famous signature red wine, almost always gets an entire wall just to itself.

Hunt around and Riesling, Semillon, Tannat, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo will also show up, even the odd Gewurtraminer. Yet curiously, two of Argentina’s most delightful and unique varietals, Torrentés and Bonarda, often go missing. The beautiful white Torrentés, Argentina’s only indigenous grape varietal and one so fresh and floral it’s like the very breath of springtime, is mostly present at the lowest price points. And as for the inky-dark and silky Bonarda, well, good luck finding any in the grocery stores -- you have to go the specialty store route, and even then, you’re lucky to find three or four examples.

On my own quest for both varietals I’ve often seen a look of puzzlement cross the vendor’s face before he responds with: “But why those two? Let me show you a nice Syrah, or a Chardonnay that’s even better than they make in France. “

It’s a strange dismissal, especially for the Bonarda. When well made, the red wine with its smooth mouthfeel and surprising longevity is not only a delicious, everyday alternative to the more expensive Malbec, it’s actually the country’s second most commonly grown varietal. Yet as a group of my fellow Canadian wine writers learned on a recent trip through Argentine wine country, not much of that crop is produced with the local market in mind -- most Bonarda is exported or used for blending. At times it was even difficult to get the winemakers to pour some for us. In the limited time in which they had our attention they preferred to focus on their accomplishments outdoing the French with their impressive Bordeaux-style blends.

Despite this attitude, some of the smartest marketers in the business (such as Dante Robino), have started heavily promoting Bonarda in print advertising placed in South American gourmet publications. So perhaps the grape is about to emerge from its under-the-radar position as Malbec’s little sister. Personally, I’m a fan, and during my next two weeks in BA I will be searching out bottles of Bonarda (and Torrentés) from a variety of producers and regions, as well as various bottle ages to compare. (More on this to come.)

You, lucky Vancouverites, have Wednesday’s One Night in Argentina event sponsored by Wines of Argentina, where in one evening you can do the same. The general tasting takes place in the Jewel Ballroom downtown and features over 25 participating Argentine Wineries. (See details here.)

Needless to say, we have to pay more for these wines than the Argentines do, but considering how many Torrontés and Bonardas will be available to sample, you might even be in a better position than the citizens of Buenos Aires.

P.S. Don’t forget that the promotional code “greatwine” will get you a $10 discount off the price of the tickets.



*Laura Catena is the General Director of Bodega Catena Zapata (as well as her own Luca Winery) in Mendoza, Argentina. She is also the author of Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina.

** Prices are quoted at the unofficial exchange rate, which most shops will offer you for US dollars.


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