No, this is not the name of a new chic restaurant or B&B in the Napa Valley. It is a grape that at one time was highly reveled in the Napa Valley. It was famously made by the Inglenook winery from 1882 until the winery was sold to Francis Ford Coppola in 1998. Today there are only 52 acres of Charbono planted in the Napa Valley and another 27 planted elsewhere in California. Have you ever tried a Charbono wine?
One important reason why there are so few Charbono vineyards is that the grape likes the same climate as Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is the big cash crop in the Napa Valley. The former manager at Inglenook, Larry Stone, told us that the vineyards in front of the Inglenook Chateau were all Charbono until they were torn out by Francis Ford Coppola and replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Charbono Growers and Wineries
Among the Napa Valley growers, Frediani Vineyards has 11.5 acres of Charbono. Many of those acres were planted in 1935. Jim Frediani sells these grapes to wineries that include Duxoup Winery, T Vine, August Briggs and Vermeil.
Summers Estates in Calistoga has 10 acres of the grape and they use all to produce 1400 cases per year plus 100 cases of Charbono Rosé. When Jack and Beth Summers purchased the property in 1996, the Charbono vineyards were thriving, and they felt it was important to continue growing the historic vines. Little did they know at the time how great a decision that would be for the winery. Summers Estates is now the largest producer of Charbono.
The Tofanelli Family has 4.76 acres planted in 1987 and, while they once sold much of the Charbono to other wineries including Turley, Vince Tofanelli now uses all these vineyards for his own label.
The Heitz Vineyard in Calistoga has 7.5 acres of Charbono. The Heitz Family has its own Shypoke Charbono and sells grapes to Robert Foley Vineyards as well as others. Gary Heitz at Shypoke says he feels a resurgence in Charbono and a growing appreciation of the wine.
Beaulieu Winery has 6.5 acres but does not make a Charbono wine. They use the grape solely for blending. The vineyard is located on Larkmead Lane in Calistoga.
I have tried the Tofanelli, Summers, and the Duxoup Charbono wines and a couple of old vintages of Inglenook Charbono, the 1968 and 1969. The current vintages have a deep purple color, almost Petite Sirah like. The aroma is blueberry and blackberry and perhaps even a bit of mustiness. Don’t let the deep color fool your taste buds. This wine is medium bodied with beautiful fruit flavors and great acidity. It is an easy-drinking wine and, because of the acidity, a good match with many food dishes. Those wine drinkers who like a heavy-duty Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon will find Charbono to be a much more restrained wine. This wine usually comes in at under 14% alcohol, with tannins on the lighter side.
At one point Charbono was thought to be an Italian grape, but it has been confirmed by U.C. Davis that the Charbono grape is the same DNA as the French Corbeau grape grown in the Savoie wine region of eastern France. In Argentina’s Mendoza wine region, this same grape is widely grown and is called Bonarda. Argentine Bonarda is slowly but surely making its way into the U.S. I have tried several Bonarda wines, mostly in the $12 range. A few have been quite good, but none nearly as polished or balanced as the California Charbono. The California Charbono wines range in price from $20 to $50 a bottle.
Those traveling to the Napa Valley who would like to taste Charbono can visit the Summers Estates winery in Calistoga on Tubbs Lane. Tofanelli Charbono can be tasted at the Upper Vintners Tasting Room in Calistoga on Lincoln. August Briggs has a tasting room on the Silverado Trail near Calistoga. Robert Foley takes visitors by appointment.
Famed winemaker Robert Foley has a very informative YouTube Video on his Charbono wine that we recommend watching.