Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Argentina’s A LISA: Beyond the Basic Malbec

Merlot grapes can and do produce good wines when handled properly. Photo by David Carrero Fernandez-Baillo.

“So a woman goes into this wine store and asks for a good bottle of wine….”

SOUNDS like the beginning of a good joke, but this time, the joke was on me.

I did go into this wine store and I did ask the clerk for a good bottle of an Argentinian Pinot Noir, and he did place a bottle of A LISA in my hands, promising that it would be a good drink. And it was.

A LISA - 2010
I took the bottle to a friend’s dinner and promptly turned it over to the host. The host uncorked it and poured. Catching a glimpse of its distinctive minimalist front label, I saw A LISA tumble into the glasses. Over a delicious meal of mushroom-barley soup, hearty salad and lovely cut of beef with braised vegetables, the Pinot Noir was perfect.

Like a true Pinot, the wine smelled instantly of a pepper-grinder freshly turned. The first sip also had the Pinot Noir’s telltale pepper and a slight but not unpleasant bite (tannins). What I hadn’t counted on was a curious hint of fruit. Imagine nibbling the end of a blackberry – just a bit – and then taking a sip of wine.

Bodega Noemia de Patagonia A LISA is the Pinot Noir of Argentinian Malbecs. Photo from Bodega Noemi A LISA Web site.

Yes, just that hint of a blackberry. The wine does not possess a lot of sweetness but just enough of a fruit taste to screw up traditional notions of what a dry wine ought to be. A LISA could easily rival Washington State Pinots, arguably some of the best in the Western Hemisphere.

The Catch
So what’s the problem?

Well, you see, the Pinot wasn’t. Digging up information, I located A LISA’s producer in several wine databases: Bodega Noemia de Patagonia.Great! Mission one-half accomplished. Then I inputted “A LISA Pinot Noir." No hits. I Googled variations of “A LISA Bodega Noemia Pinot Noir.” Not so lucky. I checked for “Bodega Noemia Pinot Noir.” Bupkus. But I did find A LISA Malbec.

What?!? Checking again, I found the Bodega Noemia Web site and learned that the vineyard doesn’t produce Pinot Noir, but only Malbec and Malbec blends. Oh God! Say it isn’t so!

You see, much like that guy in the movie “Sideways” who groans, snarls and spits whenever anyone mentions Merlot, I too break out in a fit of apoplexy whenever folks mention Argentinian Malbec. The horror!

How do you say Budweiser in Spanish?
The reason: Argentinian wine producers in the past 10 years have fallen into an often-irresistible trap of quantity over quality. Yes, Malbec is red and can wash down just about everything, serving as the Budweiser of wines. The problem is that the glut of mediocre reds is now being exported throughout the world.

Aerial view of Argentinian desert, a place where grapevines thrive. Photo from Wikipedia.

Malbec typically tastes of luscious reds fruit – imagine chomping on a ripe dark berry and then taking a sip of wine – but when the wine begins to hint of fruit salad – a little too much fruit and a little too sweet an aftertaste – then the quantity versus quality slope has gone too far off the deep end. Red wines typically go with the entrée. Keep the fruit for the cheese course and fruit salad for dessert. Quick tip: for intense fruitiness, sweetness and red wine, just save a step and order Sangria.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had some nice Argentinian Malbecs, but I’ve also been to enough wine tastings and cocktail parties serving mediocre ones that I sure as heck wouldn’t want to take them home or drink them in a restaurant. And thus I’ve become an inveterate Argentinean Malbec snob.

So imagine my surprise …
The good people at the wine store had simply assumed (as I would have done) that the grape was Pinot Noir or possibly a Pinot Noir blend. I have to swallow my pride and admit that A LISA is clearly not the basic Argentinian Malbec.

Red wines produced from overripe fruit are referred to as "jammy" because they are sweet like jam. Photo by Pascal Thauvin.

As Mama always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I should have bitten my tongue throughout the years for all those horrible things I’ve said about Argentinian Malbecs. Turns out that payback is an itch. I must admit: a fine Malbec is simply that, no matter where it’s from. And anyone will be hard-pressed to find a $19 Malbec as fine as this one. Just know that it masquerades as a Pinot Noir.

Bodega Noemia de Patagonia A LISA
Malbec blend $19; online in various places, including at Tribeca Wine Merchants, New York Ciyt (

Next Up: Jerez for the Holidays!

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