At Catena Zapata terroir is an ongoing science experiment. The philosophy is science-driven decision making. Statements about quality are not speculative or driven by marketing but are rather backed by research. As a result Catena, in my view, has done more to advance Argentinian wine than any other winery.
The Catena Institute of Wine is a case in point. Though recently founded in 2013, the institute originates in the Bodega’s research and development division founded by PhD Laura Catena in 1995. Today, the institute sponsors considerable research. For example, Catena currently has two PhDs researching the impact of sunlight on grape maturation. This is a study of ultra-violet light and not heat. In particular the research is looking into precisely how plants create antioxidant and polyphenol components in response to the higher uv found in the Andean plateaus in which Catena’s top grapes are grown. It is now known that uv has an impact on seed maturation and the development of grape skins such that greater exposure to uv leads to thicker skins, deeper colour and more tannin.
And the research is extensive. Catena’s Adrianna Vineyard is likely the most researched vineyard in the world. Over 70 papers have been written about it and Catena makes over 1,500 wines per year for experimental purposes. This has led to important changes to the winemaking as well as the introduction of a new series of Chardonnay wines from the vineyard.
Of particular importance is Catena’s research on what constitutes ‘terroir’ – the implications of which go far beyond Argentina. They have found, for instance, that the microbiology of the soil is particularly important and have gone so far as to introduce a new wine from the Adrianna vineyard named after a mould that occurs only in particular parts of that vineyard and that has an important influence on the Malbec vine’s ability to absorb nutrients – enhancing the efficiency of nutrient absorption. The resulting wine, named “mundus bacillus terrae”, is remarkably distinctive and expressive.
Two factors combine to distinguish Mendoza’s terroir from elsewhere: altitude and latitude. The winery’s belief is that the best wines result from the ideal combination of altitude and latitude. In fact, the key Adrianna Vineyard was discovered and planted as a result of searching for this perfect combination. Up to the early 2000’s, Malbec was planted in the more easterly parts of Mendoza at lower altitudes. Today, Catena’s top wines come from the higher altitudes of the more westerly Lujan do Cuyo and the Uco Valley (as you move west you also move up the Andes). Importantly, as altitude increases, the harsher monomeric tannins decrease, meaning better balance to the wines and riper tannins.
Latitude is important because it impacts the number of sunshine days and temperature. At 34 degrees southern latitude, Mendoza is a desert with 330 days of sunshine and a mere 200mm of rain per year. The desert climate provides warm days and cool nights that retain freshness in the grapes. The lack of rain means less vigour and lower yields. It also makes organic viticulture easier to achieve (it took a mere 2 years to convert the vineyards to organic, about half the time of most vineyards elsewhere).
Ultimately, the combination of Mendoza’s latitude and altitude mean the plants are physiologically ripening for a longer period of time than any other region in the world. The vines simply never shut down as the temperature never gets too hot or too cold. The Adrianna vineyard in particular sees fruit hang for 100 days – that is 25 days more than cooler French or Australian wine regions. The result is great balance, colour, flavour and aroma in the final wine.
Vinification and Blending
Many of Catena’s best wines are blends. The Catena Alta historic rows malbec served as the base of a blending session I attended with winemaker Ernesto Bajda. We tasted finished wine components of the Alta blend from various lots of Malbec planted in different parts of Mendoza. This was a fascinating experience, as there were clear differences between the wines. Some planted in the lower valleys were softer and rounder whereas the higher altitude vineyards such as Adrianna or Nicassia had firmer structure, greater acidity and more earth, minerals and floral notes.
We were asked to create our own blends – an intriguing experience and no easy task. The chemistry of blending is complex and the final product does not taste like what one might expect. For instance, I attempted to create a more structured Malbec by focusing on the higher altitude sites, but instead created a very fruity, powerful malbec that was delicious but lacked freshness.
Catena also practices co-fermentation for two of its top wines. The single vineyard Nicassia malbec is co-fermented with 2% Cab Franc and the single vineyard Adrianna is co-fermented with a small amount of Viognier.
The top wines are also fermented using indigenous yeast. Given that Catena also makes wine using cultured yeast, this poses a challenge for the winemaker because cultured yeasts are more dominant and easily take over fermentation. I was told that Catena avoids this outcome by focusing on increasing the amount of indigenous yeast on the grapes through organic viticulture. Moreover, they are very careful not to introduce the cultured yeast ferments in the winery at the beginning of the fermentations for the wines made with indigenous yeast. The reason is because it is the yeast that takes over at the beginning of the fermentation that controls the entire process. So long as there is a much greater proportion of indigenous over cultured yeast, the native yeasts will control the fermentation.
The lesson from all this? A rigorous, scientific understanding of terroir must be matched with equal care in the cellar.
Catena Alta Historic Rows Malbec 2012: The final blend tasted after reviewing all the component parts was very complete and well-rounded. It managed to express each of the unique qualities of the individual lots while providing harmony and finesse. Very Good+.
White Bones Chardonnay 2012: I’ve written about Catena’s brilliant Chardonnays before. These were the result of researching the best grapes for the Adrianna vineyard. Catena discovered that there were two parts of the vineyard with soils from geologically very distinct periods that offered completely different expressions of Chardonnay when grown and vinified in the same way. The White Bones is made from limestone soils that were formerly part of the sea bed. The White Stones on the other hand is planted in an ancient Pleistocene-era river bed filled with big particles of sand and large stones.
The nose of the White Bones has interesting notes of menthol and eucalyptus as well as more citrusy tropical fruits. That tropical quality continues on the palate – but I’m not talking about bananas and overripe mango, but rather guava fruit, and tropical citrus. This is very fresh and mouthwatering Chardonnay that can clearly age for years. The wine has incredible concentration and a very long finish. There is lots of energy to Catena’s top Chardonnays. Excellent to Excellent+
White Stones Chardonnay 2012: The White Stones has a more subdued nose and is a little softer, rounder wine compared to the White Bones. This does not mean it lacks freshness. I also found it more minerally than the White Bones. The finish fades a little faster than the Wine Bones. That said, these are both great bottles of Chardonnay. Excellent.
Nicassia Malbec 2011: Catena decided to release their two best single vineyards alongside of the the blended Argentino due to their uniqueness and high quality. The Nicassia has plusher tannins than the Adrianna but is very fresh and filled with blue fruits. A lovely and long wine that is luscious and very easy to enjoy. As noted above this wine is co fermented with cab franc (2%). Excellent
Argentino Malbec 2011: The blended Malbec is less plush than the Nicassia and a little more spicy, gamier and funkier. Very Good+ to Excellent
Adrianna ‘mundus bacillus terrae’ Malbec 2011: This is remarkably good Malbec and is the first release of the “mundus bacillus terrae” bottling (remember, that important terroir-creating mould discussed above). It is co fermented with Viognier. The wine is very structured with lots of tannin and acidity. It has huge concentration but is not at all heavy. A long and powerful wine that is also minerally, earthy and entrancingly floral. Excellent+.
Nicolas Catena Zapata 2011: The famous Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend is repeatedly amongst the world’s best Bordeaux blends vintage to vintage. It is probably the most balanced and beautiful of the wines we tasted. Made in a style that bridges the fruitiness of Napa with the more graphite and mineral driven wines of left bank Bordeaux. Excellent.
The wines of Bodega Catena Zapata are imported into British Columbia by Trialto.