Mona Elisa’s Smile

Why are infectious smiles called infectious smiles?  I get the semantics; if you are in the presence of someone with a perpetual, ear-to-ear grin you find yourself emulating it with some sort of Zelig-quality compulsion. 

But infectious sounds so STD-ish; so ebola epidemicky 

I’m forthwith nominating an colloquialism change:

A communicable smile.

Elisa Ucar

Elisa Ucar

Elisa Úcar has a communicable smile.  It bisects her pretty face beneath owlish specs and never seems to evaporate; she is the Cheshire cat of winemakers. I’m sure she grins in her sleep, which is something her husband Enrique Basarte will have to confirm.  With some people—used car salesmen, motivational speakers, Madame Tussauds figures—a perpetual smile can be positively creepy.

But Elisa is so unstoppably bubbly and cute that it is nothing short of transmittable.

She is (along with Enrique) the owner of Domaines Lupier in San Martin de Unx, which despite a French sounding name, is in Navarra, north-central Spain.  They had both spent a number of years in the Spanish wine trade, Enrique enologically and Elisa in sales, and had a nagging suspicion that they could do it as well, or better, than many of the wines with which they worked. The search for the ideal acreage (or hectareage, or whatever you call a bunch of vineyard dirt in Spain)  was intensive; it culminated in the purchase of more than two dozen parcelles—twenty-seven tiny plots of land planted, in this case, entirely to Garnacha.

enriqueyelisa

It’s a family affair

That’s their obsession; their favorite grape.  That’s all they grow and that’s all they vinify and that’s all they care to do.  They may be one-trick ponies, but they outperform many a Spanish stable.

Says Elisa, “We examined the terroirs in various areas until we found exactly what we were looking for: Black Garnacha on old vines in different soils at various orientations and altitudes—between 400 and 750 meters above sea level. Some the 27 ‘treasures’ we found were planted in 1903, which made it possible to obtain the ‘savage’ expression of Garnacha we were after.”

logoNow, that may what they were after and that may what they intend their two labels (El Terroir and La Dama) to express, or there may be something lost in translation.  Either way, to me these wines are no more savage than Elisa’s smile is pestilential.  Both wines are unique, certainly, with characters unto themselves, one showing the varietal testosterone, the other the stereotypical counterpart displaying floral notes and graceful flourishes, but neither what I would refer to as farmhouse-rustic, which are wines that I might describe as ‘savage’.

10473073El Terroir, 2008 (around $50)

A firm undercurrent of earth frames a dark fruit bouquet; the wine shows aromatics of blackberry, cocoa and tart black plum with a bit of mint.  On the palate it remains broad and deep, echoing the ripe berries of the nose while maintaining an acidic lift that works with the fruit intensity and avoids any trace of jamminess.  That, according to Elisa, is thanks to the elevation; the grapes see plenty of sunshine, but enjoy cool high-altitude evenings.  Handpicked from 12 plots with vines that average 75 years old, this particular vintage of El Terroir spent 14 months in barriques and puncheons, offering some interaction with the oak tannins, but not too much.  Thus, the wine retains a freshness that may belie its weight.

la damaLa Dama, (around $80): Explosive aromatics filled with a luscious blend of violets, fennel, strawberry and pomegranate underlayed with graphite and stones. In fact, the clay-calcareous soils of the 15 plots from which the grapes are drawn are of tertiary origin and contain what Elisa refers to as ‘mother-rock’—a trait to which she attributes the wine’s clean minerality.  I found that, but also a juicy and many-faceted array of red fruits and a pristine finish that was not overburdened with tannin, but enhanced by a judicious dusting of it.

mono-with-wine

Like Mona Elisa’s smile, her wines are somewhat addicting, and like any respectable contagion, only can be caught for a specific period of time.  As Elisa says, “Each bottle is precious”, because only 40,000 were produced.

They are masterpieces of the style—thus, the allusion to Leonardo’s most famous opus may be appropriate.  And if the original Mona happened to have a bottle of La Dama beneath that famous lace-work bodice, the smile may finally be explained.

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