Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival 2012: High Altitude Catena Wines at Hy’s

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With the recent sad announcement of the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse (B.C.’s second biggest theatre company), the Wine Festival made a coincident announcement that it would go on regardless. I am sure the wine community is greatly relieved by this, but I wonder which new organization will receive the benefit of the festival’s fund raising. The festival really does a good job at interesting and engaging consumers in the world of wine, even with its flaws, so I am glad it will go on.

High Altitude Vine Growing

This year’s festival closed for me with a dinner at Hy’s featuring the wines of famed Argentinian winery Catena. These guys have been important in supporting adoption of the latest technologies in Argentina. Nicolas Catena became fascinated with the wines of California, and in particular Napa, well before Argentina was on the wine map. His time in California was a huge influence on his winery and I would still describe the wines as heavily influenced by the California style and the UC Davis approach to wine.

That said, these wines are equally influenced by the extremely high altitude of Catena’s vineyards (between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level), which are at an altitude that is almost astonishing for grape-growing given the increased sunlight, UV and cooler temperatures. Catena is also particularly noteworthy for using massal selection to propagate the best individual vines. This technique means that rather than simply using clones for grafting and establishing vineyards, Catena actually spends the time to identify the individual plants in their vineyards that produce the best quality fruit, and use these plants as mother plants for further plantings. Not everything Catena grows is done in this fashion, but their best wines, made from their oldest vines, benefit from this rare technique.

The Wines of Catena

Catena is consistent in producing high quality wine at all price points, though for me it is their top wines that are the most interesting. The cheaper everyday wines do offer a base level of quality no matter the vintage, and while not particularly exciting, they certainly offer the consumer consistency and value.

The Catena Chardonnay 2010 is a well made, varietally correct Chard without over the top oak or alcohol. It is a solid, decently structured wine for the price, even if not distinguished. Very Good. $20 at BCLDB.

The Catena Alta Chardonnay 2010 is a step up in quality and price, with pineapple, citrus and a creamy, but balanced, texture. This is a blend of 3 vineyards and is, again, well made and tasty. That said, it is not as distinguished as its top competitors at the same price point. The issue for me was that while the fruit was certainly high quality I found the wine to have a bit of glyceral sweet richness that pushed the wine closer to being over the top than I would prefer. I have had previous vintages that are fantastic, however, and I think this also needs a little bottle age. Very Good+. $40 at Private Stores.

The Catena Alta Malbec 2008 had a nose of chocolate, brambly blackberry and some florality. This is immediately exciting with a big blast of rich and tasty fruit upon the initial sip. However, the wine lost a bit of complexity in the mid-palate and the acid was too low for the fruit and alcohol, making the wine somewhat flabby. I did find the fruit and violets to be quite interesting and unique and certainly amongst the more interesting Malbecs out there. I just wish the acid was a bit more balanced. Very Good. $65 at Private Stores and BCLDB.

The wine of the night was most definitely the 2001 Nicolas Catena Zapata – the winery’s flagship wine. I was amazed at how well this Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon blend (50/50) aged and how Bordelais like it was with blackberry fruit, graphite and an autumnal leafyness. A very smooth wine on the palate and extremely fresh for its age, this wine was complete in its length, balance and elegance. Excellent to Excellent+. ~$120 for the new vintage.

The 2007 Nicolas Catena Zapata lacked the 2001’s elegance and seemed a bit flabbier and out of focus with big fruit Malebc-ness dominating the wine. Much richer and more modern than the 2001, this seems to be influenced by the big glyceral-sweet wines that make the Wine Advocate 95+ points list. I hope this does not mark a change in the winery’s approach to this wine because the fruit quality truly is unique and amongst the very best in the southern hemisphere. Very Good+. ~$120 at Private Stores.

Conclusion

Catena is certainly amongst the best wineries in Argentina, making consistently solid wines. While part of me thinks the pricing of the top wines is not competitive in a wine world where you can get top wines from Italy and France for the same price, another part of me thinks that Catena’s top wines represent good value compared to top wines from top names in California, many of which cost up to twice the price of Catena’s wines. I also think that Catena has and is pushing wine making quality in Argentina forward, particularly with their vine selection program and identification of special and effective high altitude sites. The 2001 Nicolas Catena Zapata was a testament that the winery can produce truly outstanding wines.

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