An Evening with Catena Zapata

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Yesterday I had the good fortune of winning a contest to dine with the wine educator Jeff Mausbach from Catena Zapata and taste a full range of their high end wines. I was joined by 4 other winners, all of whom were very nice and very much unpretentiously passionate about wine, and the rep from the wine importing company that brings Catena into Canada (Calibrium) who was also quite insightful about the wine business. It was a great night and a great chance to taste some brilliant Argentine wines. I drank everything with lamb chops – a very nice combination.

A little bit on Catena Zapata: a winery that takes their wine making very very seriously, sparing no expense, these guys have been experimenting for decades to find the perfect vineyard sites and blends to make wines that can compete with the best in the world. Nicolas Catena apparently holds a PhD in statistical economics and taught for two years at Berkeley in the 80’s, all the while visiting wineries in Napa and honing his techniques. Often taking years to experiment before releasing any wine, Catena has a very serious attitude towards quality. Jeff at the dinner put it well when he said a mantra of the winery is a famous quote from a french winemaker that “tradition is an experiment that worked”. An interesting premise that exposes the relationship between risk, innovation and cultural acclimation. Catena certainly has an interesting philosophy of wine and wine-making, and I think this shows very well in their wines.

Before the dinner, I attended an in-store tasting with Catena of several of their ‘lower end’ wines, all of which were quite impressive for their price point, and I will start with my impressions of those.

Alamos Chardonnay 2007

On the nose I got toasty vanilla and pineapple, with the palate continuing the pineapple trend into citrus territory. There was a relatively strong sense of oak on the back end, but this was buoyed by a solid acidic structure that made this really stand out for its price.

Very Good
$15 at Everything Wine

Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Light in colour for Cabernet, this wasn’t what I expected. A light berry nose of raspberry and blackberry was doubled in the palate and coupled by a very subtle touch of oak, and, again, firm acidity. The tannins were quite subdued with this very food friendly but also very light Cabernet. A good value.

Very Good
$18 at Everything Wine

Alamos Syrah 2006

Adding weight as I moved along the reds, this syrah was quite fantastic in its minerality and roundness of flavour. Cherries and currants with secondary flavours of earth, chocolate and coffee, this had impressive structure for its price.

Very Good+
$18 at Everything Wine

Catena Malbec 2006

Entering much richer territory, the Catena Malbec had a big meaty nose coupled with cassis and a touch of old world funk. The palate offered pepper, coffee, vanilla, and a very long finish for this price point. Perhaps slightly hot in the back end, this was very slight and would probably diminish with one hour of decanting. This, to me, is an everyday wine par excellence.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$23 at Everything Wine

After the in-store tasting, we headed off to Arm’s Reach Bistro in Deep Cove for a fantastic flight of high end Catena goodness, starting with a white…

Catena Alta Chardonnay 2005

A very well made buttery style chard that yet had sufficient restraint to prevent it from becoming an ‘oak monster’. A big nose of very rich nectarine and plush citrus fruits, the palate coupled the fruityness with creamy and caramelly oak. Yet, as with all the wines from Catena I had tasted up to this point, the core of acidity was well placed and held the wine up very well. While I tend to like slightly less oaky and creamy chardonnays, this is a superb example of that style.

Very Good+
$40 at Everything Wine

Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

Now we’re talking. A fantastic plummy, blackberry, chocolate and Eucalyptus nose that expanded into cedar, bitter chocolate and plum on the palate. A big fruit-driven wine that was still very very balanced. I found this cab to be quite napa-like, but I would expect to pay twice this in napa for the same quality. The cab also had a very solid integrative structure, and fine tannins that lifted the fruit into a very full-bodied palate.

$54 at Everything Wine

Catena Alta Malbec 2005

One important item to note was that the serving temperature of all these wines was perfect, probably sitting at around 14-15 degrees. The temperature really helped bring out the fruit and purity of the wine and I think was essential to their quality. The Malbec had a plummy and earthy nose, but was fruitier and perhaps even richer than the cab. The palate was earthy and gamey, and reminded me a little of a good southern rhone wine, without any rough edges. The astonishing thing to me with all the wines was the perfect balance they achieved between alcohol, acidity, oak, fruit, tannin and secondary flavours. It was a remarkable achievement. Personally I think this Malbec maybe needed a little more bottle age to show its full complexity, but was quite a fantastic wine nontheless.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$65 at Everything Wine or BCLDB

Nicolas Catena Zapata 2004

What a stunner. A blend of 78% Cab and 22% Malbec, this wine could easily be compared to top-fight wines from around the world. Wines, that is, that sell for substantially more dollars. A rich super-intense nose of briar fruit, eucalyptus, and cream puff – not explosive, but incredibly expressive. While the palate had great purity in its blackberry and cassis fruit, this wine was all about finesse, impressive structure, and balance very very rarely seen in wine. With the lamb chops this stood out as the ideal pairing. Truly world-class – this is a must buy for me.


So, in the end, a fantastic event that I was very pleased to be a part of. This experience has convinced me of the world-class quality of wines available from Argentina and I will never forget the stunning revelation of the last wine. Thanks to all who made this possible, and thanks, mostly, to the winemaker. A Bodega worth noticing.


  1. Wine Tasting Guy
    November 10, 2008

    Very cool stuff Shea.

    I love in your opening how you speak of “unpretentiously passionate about wine” people. Great!

    The wine reviews were nicely done, but some of those wines seem expensive? $50 or $100 for a bottle of wine. Out of the price range of most people except for special occasions don’t you think?

  2. Shea
    November 10, 2008

    Thanks. True for most. Although it is important to note that BC taxes wine 100%. So, those $20 bottles from the US are $40 here.

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