Stones, Bones, and the Greatest White Wines of Argentina
The bet on Malbec paved a road to fair similarity and brand recognition. The few great examples now marred by association with old-guard wine-critics seeking extract and alcohol rather than finesse and drinkability. Both are unneeded limitations for a country with broader, more compelling potential.
Proof of this potential has come to me in pieces over the last few years. It arrived with alacrity with Catena’s two crowning achievements in Chardonnay: White Stones and White Bones.
Catena released its inaugural 2009 vintage in 2012. In that short time Catena has produced something worthy of iconic status. These are the greatest white wines in Argentina, and most likely, in South America. I also consider the two variants on terroir-driven Chardonnay to be amongst the most intriguing and impressive examples of the grape outside of Burgundy. The quality is such that I consider them a bargain at their current price point.
The superlatives derive from an utter dedication to meticulous, painstaking experimentation and micro-vinification. More than most any other winery in the world I can think of, the Catenas distinguish each lot, row and plant in their vineyards, using scientific-method trial and error along with informed guesses to determine the best way to coax the most interesting results out of each particular row. Their decisions and research have become more and more precise over the years and are likely the most advanced in Argentina. This may mean, for example, planting lots in the same vineyard to different densities, picking and vinifying separately and tasting the results to gauge the outcome.
Catena’s two top Chardonnays, White Stones and White Bones, are the result of this research. They are specific row selections from two parts of the Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary, Mendoza. The vinification is the same, the soils are distinct.
The White Stones vines are located in soils covered with oval white stones that were once an ancient stream bed. The White Bones vines are located in sandy soil layered with calcereous deposits and limestone with fossilized animal bones throughout. The soils are from geologically distinct periods, though resting today in the same vineyard. That vineyard, by the way, is a mere 4,757 feet above sea level.
This elevation brings to mind a comment made to me by Bonneau du Martray’s Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière, who said that he believes it is light quality more than quantity that determines the terroir of a particular place. This helps explain why the intensity of light you find at such high elevations might contribute to making these Chardonnays unlike any others I’ve tasted.
As for vinification, both wines are made from Dijon clones 76 and 95, are whole cluster pressed and fermented in 225-500 litre French oak barrels at low temperature. Battonage is employed, but sparingly and 70% of the wine sees malo-lactic fermentation.
White Stones (2011) is a more cerebral, citrus and mineral driven Chardonnay with a unique intensity and weight surprising for its 12.9% ABV. It is not “impressive” but rather subtle. It is a wine requiring nuanced perception to fully appreciate. It is a wonderful food wine.
White Bones (2011) is a rich, succulent orchard fruited wine with flowers and a sustained finish. At 13.1% ABV it has the lush fruit of a 14%+ California Chardonnay but the skeleton of Chassagne-Montrachet. It is a rare combination I have encountered only with the very best new world Chardonnays. Along with this, the flavour profile is sculpted in a distinctly Argentine form I cannot easily describe. It is exciting.
Both the White Bones and the White Stones deserve the same rating:
$115 for the White Bones (spec order, through Trialto)
$95 for the White Stones (spec order, through Trialto)