Douce noir (also known as Bonarda, Corbeau and Charbono) is a red French wine grape variety that has been historically grown in the Savoie wine region of eastern France but today is more widely planted in the South American country of Argentina. The earliest mention of the grape dates to the early 19th century and by the end of that century it was the most widely grown red wine grape in eastern France. In the early 21st century it was discovered that the Bonarda grape which is the 2nd most widely planted red grape, after Malbec, in Argentina was not the Italian wine grape Bonarda Piemontese as originally thought but rather Douce noir. The grape is also grown in California where it is known as Charbono.
In California, Douce noir/Charbono is produced in very limited amounts with the grape having been described as a "cult wine" for its scarcity and devotion of its connoisseurs. However, growers such as Jim Summers of the Napa Valley winery Summers Estate describes the variety as "... the Rodney Dangerfield of wine" and notes that it is a hard variety to find a market for.
History and origins
Some of the early synonyms of Douce noir, Plant de Turin and Turin, hinted that the grape may have originated in the Piedmont wine region of Italy. The name Douce noir itself means "sweet black" in French which is similar to the Italian name of the Piedmont grape Dolcetto nero ("small sweet black") which further lead to speculation that Douce noir had Piedmontese origins. This hypothesis, as well as any relation with Dolcetto, would later be dispelled by DNA analysis in the 21st century and today ampelographers believe that the grape likely originated in the Savoie region of eastern France.
In Savoie, the earliest mention of the grape variety dates to a letter written on November 24th, 1803 by the mayor of Saint-Pierre-d'Albigny to the prefect of Savoie describing the grape varieties growing in his commune. Other documents showed that Douce noir was also widely planted in the communes of Arbin and Montmélian and by the end of the 19th century it was the most widely planted red grape variety in Savoie.
Douce noir was also found outside of Savoie, particularly in Jura, where the grape was known as Corbeau which means "crow" and is thought to be a reference to the inky black color of the wine that Douce noir can produce.
Discovery of other plantings
While plantings of Douce noir dwindled in France, DNA research of grape varieties in other wine growing regions revealed that the grape was more widely planted than originally thought. In 2000 DNA analysis revealed that the Turca grape growing in the Veneto wine region of northeast Italy since at least the early 20th century was actually Douce noir. This came after the discovery that the Charbono wine grape of California, introduced to the Napa Valley as Barbera by Italian immigrants in the early 19th century, was also Douce noir/Corbeau. By this time Charbono was already speculated to be the Bonarda grape of Argentina which for years was mistakenly thought to be the Italian wine grape Bonarda Piedmontese. Further research confirmed by 2008 that the Bonarda/Charbono grape that was the second most widely planted red grape variety in Argentina, after Malbec, was actually the Savoie wine grape Douce noir.
Viticulture and relationship to other grapes
Douce noir is a very late ripening grape variety that is often harvested after Cabernet Sauvignon. To extend the growing season, some vignerons will prune early in January in order to promote early bud break. The grape has very thick skins and a high phenolic content which requires heat in order to achieve physiological ripeness but excessive heat can risk creating "cooked flavors" in the resulting wines. Growers in California have discovered some of the more ideal vineyard locations for Douce noir/Charbono are warm-climate sites with significant diurnal temperature variations from a drop in night time temperature.
In California, many of the Douce noir/Charbono vines are very old with some blocks over 70 years old. Many of these vines have developed various viral grape diseases and producers have slowly been replanting acres with young vines of newer clones and rootstock. The yield for many of these older plantings is often around 2.5 to 3 tons/acre (approximately 47 to 57 hectoliters/hectares) while younger plantings can often produce 6 to 8 tons/acre (approximately 114 to 152 hl/ha).
Despite sharing several synonyms and often being confused for one or the other, Douce noir has no known relationship to the Piedmontese grapes Dolcetto and Bonarda Piemontese nor to any of the other Italian varieties that have Bonarda as a synonym such as Croatina and Uva Rara. It also has no known relationship to Douce Noire grise an old French variety that according to ampelographer Pierre Galet is no longer cultivated.
Today Douce noir is far more likely to be found in the New World wine regions of California and Argentina than it is in native France. In 2007 there were only 2 hectares (5 acres) of Douce noir reported in production most of it in the Savoie and Jura wine region where it is often blended with Persan. One producer makes a varietal style under the Vin de Pays d'Allobrogie designation.
In Argentina, the 18,759 hectares (46,354 acres) of Bonarda/Douce noir makes it is the second most widely planted red grape variety in the country after Malbec and representing 8% of the country's total vineyard plantings. The vast majority of the plantings are in the Mendoza wine region but significant plantings can also be found in the La Rioja and San Juan provinces. Here the grape is used for both blending (sometimes with Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon) but also as a varietal wine that Master of Wine Jancis Robinson notes has the potential to be of high quality.
In California, where the grape is known as Charbono, the variety has a long history in the Napa Valley where it was an important variety for producers such as Inglenook and Parducci, even though it was mistakenly labeled as Barbera, and sometimes Pinot noir, until the 1930s. Inglenook won many wine competitions with the variety labeled as Barbera and Parducci would often blend the grape with its other (true) Pinot noir plantings. It wasn't until research conducted at the University of California, Davis by Harold Olmo and, later, Albert Winkler, confirm that these various plantings of Barbera and Pinot noir were, in fact, a different grape altogether, which was called Charbono. Inglenook would release its first varietal labeled Charbono in 1941. In 1999, Carole Meredith, also of UC-Davis, would link Charbono to the Savoie grape Douce noir/Corbeau.
In 2008, there were 36 hectares (88 acres) of Charbono/Douce noir with nearly half of those plantings in Napa Valley, particularly in the warm Calistoga AVA. Other plantings can be found in the American Viticultural Areas of Monterey, Madera, Mendocino Lodi, Dos Rios, Sierra Foothills and Mount Veeder. While sometimes used a blending variety, the grape has been prominently featured as a varietal or major component of wines from Heitz Wine Cellars, Turley Wine Cellars, Castoro Cellars, Robert Foley, and Bonny Doon Vineyard.
In the Old World wine regions of France and Italy, Douce noir is often used as blending grape contributing to the mid-palate of the wine. In California, the grape is often made as a varietal wine. There, many of the Douce noir/Charbono vines planted are very old, producing a very dense, medium to full bodied wine with a deep, inky purple color and moderate acidity. The wines often have black fruit and plum aroma and flavor notes that can develop into leather and tar notes as the wine ages. Well-made examples from favorable vintages can have the potential to age in the bottle for 10 to 20 years.
In Argentina, varietal examples of Douce noir/Bonarda are similarly characterized by a deep purple color with notes of cassis, fennel, cherry, and dried fig. Wine expert Oz Clarke notes that the grape needs a long growing season and time to fully ripen or the wines will have green, vegetal flavors.
Douce noir lends itself to moderate alcohol levels, only very rarely going above 14%. In food and wine pairings, this can make Douce noir a very versatile wine that can be paired with game meat as well as chicken, cheese and seafood dishes in heavy sauces.
Over the years Douce noir has been known under a variety of synonyms including: Alcantino, Aleante, Batiolin, Bathiolin (in Albertville), Blaue Gansfuesser, Bonarda (in Argentina), Bourdon noir, Carbonneau, Charbonneau (in Jura), Charbono (in California), Corbeau (in the Ain and Isère departments as well as Jura), Cot Merille, Cot Rouge Merille, Cote Rouge, Dolcetto Grosso, Dolutz, Douce noire, Folle Noire d L'Ariege, Grenoblois, Korbo, Mauvais noir, Ocanette, Picot Rouge, Plant de Calarin, Plant de Montmelion, Plant de Savoie, Plant de Turin (in Jura), Plant noir (in the Haute-Savoie department), Turca (in the Trentino region of Italy), Turin (in Jura) and Turino.
- J. Robinson, J. Harding and J. Vouillamoz Wine Grapes - A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours pgs 309-310 Allen Lane 2012 ISBN 978-1-846-14446-2
- Patrica Savoie "Charbono: A Grape Struggles to Avoid Extinction" Wine Business Monthly. May 2003 issue. Accessed: April 27th, 2013
- Alan Goldfarb "Charbono: The Misunderstood Grape Breaks Through…Barely" Appellation America, January 25th, 2008
- Richard Nalley "Paging Charbono and Mencia" Forbes, October 10th, 2009
- Desimone, Mike; Jenssen, Jeff (2012). Wines of the Southern Hemisphere. New York: Sterling Epicure. p. 7. ISBN 9781402786259.
- Appellation America "Charbono" Grape profiles. Accessed: April 27th, 2013
- Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pg 112 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0-15-100714-4
- Vitis International Variety Catalogue (VIVC) Douce noir Accessed: April 26th, 2013