Tue 9 Nov 2010
MENDOZA, Argentina — You just know it when you’re drinking great wine.
At twilight, our group was crowded around a table in the dining room of a tin-roofed “cottage” built in 1912, tasting the wines of Alma Negra. We had ridden the bus way out into the country to find the house, which had originally stood in splendid isolation, though in the century since it was built a village had grown up around it. We were not at the winery, and in fact I couldn’t tell you where the wines are made. Living in the old house are Andrés Ridois, commercial director for Èrnesto Catena Vineyards, and his family. Alma Negra — “Black Soul” — is owned by Èrnesto Catena, son of Nicolás and Elena Catena, who with dignity and quiet authority oversee the well-known estate of Catena Zapata. Perhaps from some other relative Èrnesto inherited his gift for a good joke, even to the point of eccentricity, as in his red wine blends called Misterio, of which he refuses to reveal the blend or even the grapes.
We started with lovely sparkling wines from 2009, a chardonnay and a malbec rosé. Then an eye-opening Viognier 2009, followed by an equally surprising Pinot Noir 2008 from the arid Tupungato region. Then a Bonardo 2007 — with 10 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc — that brought raised eyebrows. I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I thought that I felt a frisson of interest amounting to excitement run through the room as the wines succeeded each other. There were nods here and there; a half-smile; a glance at a neighbor that implied, “Whoa!” or “Wow!” or “This is the real thing!” Such exclamations were certainly revolving through my mind, because these were wines of style and substance, the kind of wines that make an impression of thoughtfulness, confidence, gallantry, nobility both balanced and off-set by a sense of wildness, playfulness and wit.
Then we try Misterio and Gran Misterio from 2007, and they are wild, woolly, monumental and, let’s add, controversial. As great wines often do, these wines of Alma Negra generated a great deal of discussion around the table, about oak and tannin, about the “misterio” device of concealing the grapes and percentages, about the “California” palate and fashion of winemaking. Nonetheless, no one, I adduce, fails to be provoked or affected in some manner.
With dinner, outside on the terrace, a balmy night that happens to be John Lennon’s birthday, we try the first Alma Negra red wine from 2003 and then the Bonarda 2005, and I go back to that Pinot Noir 2008, smoothing out nicely. There’s tangoing, and a musician/singer who performs Lennon’s songs and much dancing and clapping and cheering from the wine writers and lifestyle writers and food writers. There will be photos to go on Facebook, but I suppose we’re past the age of worrying about snoops in college admission offices.
The wines of Alma Negra are imported by Winebow, New York.
The Alma Negra Viognier 2009 is so damned pretty. Aromas of waxy white flowers, roasted lemon and spiced peach and pear are subtly modulated, and while those elements amount to a small luxury, in the mouth the wine is very dry, quite crisp and pert, and the emphasis is on limestone-like minerality of scintillating power; citrus and pear flavors, with a slightly exotic, spicy tinge, are a wash of nuance. The oak regimen is nine to 12 months in French barrels, one-third new, one-third second use, one-third third use; you feel the oak start to layer its effects after a few moments from mid-palate back through the finish, though the wine remains sleek and suave and sophisticated. A wine of tremendous character and elan. 2,000 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $24.
The Alma Negra Pinot Noir 2008 opens with a lovely limpid ruby-garnet color, a true Burgundian robe. The bouquet, too, is classic: black cherry, smoke, cloves, rose petal and camellia and an undercurrent of sassafras. Black cherry flavors are tinged with the earthiness of rhubarb and a touch of moss and briers; it’s all quite pure and intense, though (again) the wood influence begins to dominate from the mid-palate; the wine aged 14 months in a half-and-half combination of barriques and larger 500-liter barrels; wouldn’t 10 months have been sufficient? On first tasting, I thought the wine lacked the elegance its color and bouquet would seem to foretell, but going back to it a few hours later, it had smoothed out and mellowed considerably, feeling more balanced and integrated and honestly lovely. 400 cases. Best from 2011 to 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.
The identity of the bonarda grape is as opaque as Topsy’s genealogy. Oz Clarke, in his valuable Encyclopedia of Grapes (Harcourt, 2001), tells us that in Piedmont and Lombardy the bonarda grape and the croatina grapes are often confused and even called by the opposite names, not counting the additional confusion of several clones. The Argentine bonarda may be none of those grapes; it might be California’s (rapidly disappearing) charbono grape or it might be related to the Piedmontese dolcetto. Some grape-growers and winemakers in Argentina think that bonarda has the potential to produce better wine than malbec. On the evidence of Alma Negra’s Bonarda 2007, I would say that there’s a good chance of that happening, at least in the right hands.
Blended with 10 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc, the wine is a dark ruby color that’s black at the center and slightly magenta-like at the rim. From first to last, you realize that it’s a wine to set aside for three or four years while it meditates upon company manners. The dominant features are a pungent and penetrating granite-like essence; dense, chewy, finely-milled tannins; and an austere oaky/woody quality. Give it a few minutes of your time and patience, though; swirl the wine in the glass; set it aside for a moment and swirl again and take a sniff: slowly unfurl black currants and blueberries, coffee, warm tar and bitter chocolate, sweet baking spices (and a tinge of sandalwood), leather and dusty briers and brambles, and deep at the core, a winsome strain of lavender. Yes, it’s a blockbuster, but a blockbuster with a heart; it walks on the wild side but its shoes are velvet. Yeah, damnit, I’m getting carried away here, but I found this Alma Negra Bonarda 2007 to be a wine of great character and tremendous possibility; it needs from 2013 or ’14 to 2017 or 2020. Production was 6,000 cases, so there’s plenty. Excellent. About — yer not going to believe this — $20, a Freaking Bargain of Utmost Magnitude.
Now we come to Misterio 2007, a red wine made from grapes that are not revealed in a blend of which we know no detail, though a safe bet is to say that contained within the bottle are malbec, bonarda and cabernet franc. So: sweet oak, lots of it, and sweet spices; granite and shale; the whole spice box; violets and lavender under black cherries and black currants with something wild and a hint of mulberry, piercingly ripe and slightly woodsy; and then a backnote of prune and fruitcake. Austere, well-disciplined tannins; a sense of decorum, despite the untamed nature; pent energy waiting for release; a slumbering giant. Try from 2013 or ’15 to 2020 or ’25. Alcohol content is 14%. Excellent. About $30 to $33.
Frankly, I didn’t detect enough difference in quality between Misterio 2007 and Gran Misterio 2007 to merit the difference in price; perhaps that’s the grand mystery. Not that it’s not a wine that will shake you to your nerves and bones with its power. Of course it’s practically opaque, you know, black as the night that covers me blah blah, and of course the aromas form a thrilling amalgam of licorice, lavender, violets, smoke, meaty and fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit, and then, after a few minutes a hint of bell pepper and black olive, the touchstones of cabernet franc; it seems cool with minerals, warm with spice. Boy, though, it coats the mouth with formidable oak and tannin. Like many an old castle and fortress, Gran Misterio ’07 seems more imposing than distinguished, yet it’s clearly a wine with a presence like few others, a wine to be reckoned with, but from 2014 or ’16 to 2020 or ’25. 160 cases. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $60.