Argentina’s Bodega Catena Zapata is in the throes of self-professed “Three Revolutions.” The first was inspired by Napa Valley, a grand success story that convinced Nicolás Catena Zapata to pursue the consciousness of emulation. He made the decision to plant, cultivate and produce high quality cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. He infused his high-end domestic red with malbec, initiating a long history for this wine and a technique many others would follow. The old Italian traditions were eschewed for the Calif-French style. Catena has long since brought that wine to the world. The first revolution has been realized.
The development of extreme high altitude vineyards are at the crux of Catena’s second revolution. “When we talk about making a high altitude blend, we are actually taking about making a high altitude family of blends,” says Dr. Laura Catena, by way of introduction to a small faction of Toronto media. Plant selections and cuttings are employed with geneology and lineage. “To me climate has always been defined by latitude. Altitude is an entirely separate component. It’s a fact. Different soils give different flavours. I think the explanation lies in the microbes. Terroir needs to be redefined with these elements.”
Which leads to the third revolution, the current obsession defined by vinous archaeology, as if the Catena team are searching for fossils and signs of ancient life in the soil of their Adrianna Vineyard. They are in fact looking for diversity, variance and permutations, what viticulturists like to call micro-terroir. They are seeking to prove a French theory which attributes 100 per cent wine quality to terroir. Research is the mode de vie and who better to lead the revolution than the Harvard University-educated, biologist and physician Dr. Laura Catena. She and Head Winemaker Alejandro Vigil, along with Fernando Buscema and Vineyard Manager Luis Reginato have created the “Catena Institute of Wine.” What treasures they unearth will unlock the secret to the third “vineyard lot” revolution.
Their website reads “Leña Restaurante by Chef Anthony Walsh is an all-day dining destination, inspired by South American cooking, located at the corner of Yonge and Richmond.” Truer time-gastronomy continuum words are rarely spoken. We arrived early to meet Dr. Laura Catena, listened with great intent as she led us through nine appellation series and Adrianna Vineyard wines and then moved on to lunch. If ducking out early to catch an overseas flight were not an obstacle it would have added up to the better part of an all-day affair. I would have had no problem with that.
We are blessed in Toronto, this close-knit wine community of ours, with access to a never-ending flow of great wine. We are also graced by exceptional humans, wine purveyors, men and women who have assumed the thankless task of procuring the finest available products from around the globe, against all odds beneath the shadow of the world’s most tyrannical liquor system. Hats off to them.
On November 9th Craig de Blois, Richard Dittmar and Mark Coster of Noble Estates, three smarter than your average bear, stand up guys played chaperone to Argentina’s Dr. Laura Catena in Toronto for this media tasting and trade lunch. We journalists and sommeliers are all well-versed in the Catena portfolio. My WineAlign colleagues and I had recently sat down with winemaker Ernesto Badja for a full-on, wide-scale investigation into a large section of the portfolio. This extraordinary and climat-precise sit-down went much further, deep into the soil for a compendious look at the proselytism of Catena culture.
Much of the discourse with Dr. Laura Catena during this visit focused on the science of soil, of microbes, bacteria and block by block vineyard investigations. I would expand further but I’ll just have to ask you to read the tasting notes below. Each of the very specific wines poured by Dr. Catena is driven by a particular block or a structured pyramid of amalgamated plots and the notes must speak to the science behind each expression. No more questions here. Just read the notes.
The humidity of Vista Flores (where there is much more rainfall) makes for another level of compression and density in malbec. A very floral red, from violets and roses, mixed in with deep, dark fruit. The tannins are sous vide and subterranean, throaty, tobacco-laced and rigid. Gifts a soft peppery bite, fine dust, even finer tang, minty meets calcari feel. The purpose here is to elevate Catena’s cabernet sauvignon and malbec essentials into more curious consumer territory. Value here is strong and purposed so there is nothing to fear. Single vineyards are not always commercially sustainable but single terroirs are so much more likely so. This is the epitome of that concept for malbec in Mendoza. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted June and November 2016
Paraje Altamira refers to something that is distant, far away, separated, a terroir where plots and places are dotted, separated by one another by some distance. Here Catena procures the flesh of the land with a malbec that delves deeper into earth and clay and procures a fuller, riper rich berry that goes to blue and boys. Though the tones of aromatic intensity and acidity are elevated, the ceiling is finite and the malbec juice is brilliantly protected. The earthy, material funk is all in, in surround and prevalent even as it finishes with the effects of great soil structure variegations. There is modern nebbiolo meets South African schisty syrah from mineral, smoked meat and smoulder in here. It’s got tartare running through its blood. Wow. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted June and November 2016
Here in 2014 the single terroir series cabernet franc by Catena heads in the right direction with elevated aromatic tones, so different than the malbec. Well enough aside and beyond just location, it seems San Carlos accentuates the acidity and the herbal conditioning to fruit, making it taste more like plum and pomegranate than berries. The barrel weighs yet does trod lightly on the ripe red fruit. There is great persistence in its gait, with additional black fruit from currants and berries. The pyrazines are low to almost noon-discernible. Drink 2017-2021. Tasted June and November 2016
The aromatics fly from this four vineyard blend, more than the malbecs and certainly with haute plaisir as compared to the cabernet franc. The far-reaching amalgamation comes by way of La Pirámide Vineyard in the Agrelo district of Luján de Cuyo, Domingo Vineyard in the Villa Bastías district of Tupungato, Nicasia Vineyard located in Altamira in the La Consulta district of San Carlos and the high-altitude Adrianna Vineyard in the Gualtallary district of Tupungato. Travels well beyond fruit into florals and a sense of one another’s cumulative soil. What happens in Agrelo’s soils reacts with cabernet sauvignon or rather it allows (or encourages) these vines to draw something other. Something that is deep into a richness of tang, not an elevated acidity but a round and circuitous one. Balance is unearthed (literally) and this wine is extremely fresh, in fact it’s bloody delicious. A bit dusty and a few drops of bitters fall into it late so there is a minor sense of char and tar. Lingers like cabernet can and should. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted November 2016
The White Stones chardonnay from the altitude-aromatic-accelerating Adrianna Vineyard is part of Catena’s third revolution, in concert to understanding soil, led by Laura Catena, beginning here. From Laura’s passion for “parcelas,” micro-level soil locations, going back to an investigation that began in 2000. In a locale above a dried riverbed, leaving big rocks, limestone, sand and more rocks in various locations, with the use of 70 parcel bits per hectare showing what is where. Stones on the soil’s surface help to facilitate and create a micro-climate of warm days and very cold nights. From the outset it has to be said that no chardonnay from the southern hemisphere has ever intimated Burgundy as one smell and one taste as here it has done. It is noted as an impression deeply internalized from this single parcel within the vineyard. There are sticks and stones in elegant lines, subtle, demurred white flower aromas, lime-creamy fruit, petals and rock. A wow mouthfeel and flavour intensity. Wild-eyed acidity. All this could not have been laid clear, or bare, a year ago. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted November 2016
The flip side of the Adrianna Vineyard is the antithetical White Bones, also part of Laura Catena’s third revolution, investigating and culling acuity from soil through the breakdown of the “parcelas.” These micro-level soil locations were first dissected in 2000 for the purpose of deconstructing Adrianna’s block-by-block diversity. The Bones necessarily draws from the ancient riverbed below, from its single parcel limestone, sand and rocks within the vineyard, though it seems quite deferential to the White Stones. It’s somehow fleshier and corporeal, of similar sticks but less stones. More bones, like an arm outstretched from the crackling skin of the roasting bird or swine. More gastronomy in that sense, less cool-climate and limestone a mere twinkle, not a shard or karst stuck like a needle into that arm. But the palate returns to join the stones with citrus and intensity. Chardonnay of concentration and balance with the soil crumbling like bones, shells and fossils into what is best described as Chablis. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted November 2016
The epiphany came after Jacques Lurton told Nicolás Catena “your cabernet sauvignon reminds me of the Languedoc.” So Nicolás went back to Argentina and planted at 5,000 feet of elevation. History changed. So the coolest (others insisted “you will never ripen at this altitude”) site produces this dry, dusty, intense cabernet sauvignon, the kind you can’t deny is possessive of powers unable to resist oozing dark black currants, chocolate and spice. Try musing about holes on the palate and if you find one it’s black into which once entered reveals no exit point. The back is very chocolate driven, of dark cacao, bitterless and strong. Note the balanced intervals of structure by fine-line drawn architecture and see where this will travel. For 10 more years until the fruit begins to dry and shrivel to further intensify. The mind’s obsession keeps returning back to the middle palate that drives the machine. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted November 2016
Catena’s Adrianna has clearly emerged as its most important vineyard and its biological dissolution is spurred by Laura Catena’s medical state of being and an unpropitious thirst for viticultural, micro-level knowledge. The analogical thinking machine delves deep into soil locations from an investigation that began in 2000. This section of Adrianna draws aridity and subtlety (as opposed to power) from the subterranean riverbed, leaving the big rock and heavy clay impart to others. From this single parcel within the vineyard the surprisingly attenuated and reserved character creates a new order for malbec, from Catena and the single-vineyard entablature. Quite pretty, floral and less volatile than not just Catena’s way but Mendoza malbec as a thing. A natural cure in the flavour profile tends to salumi and comes late. But even more respect is awarded because the overall personality is achieved without shrouding, sheathing or smouldering. It’s a very transparent malbec of extreme clarity, engaging and inviting. Singular actually. Drink 2018-2025. Tasted November 2016
In this extremely specific malbec from a diagnosed block of the Adrianna Vineyard we are graced with the micro-science of wine. And if you feel that using the name of an aerobic bacteria in the nomenclature is an odd choice, consider the mind of Dr. Laura Catena and her biological approach to viticulture. If we can understand and differentiate the microbes in the soil we can make better wine. It’s as simple as that. When wine is broken down to the biological level is becomes something entirely different and this is the road travelled by the Mundus Bacillus. Catena’s usage of 70 parcel pits per hectare has unearthed this single parcel within the vineyard, again completely different and the pinpointed microbial discussion initiates right here. The soil stakes a claim for this malbec only, certainly not in any way that tends to funk but surely as an impresario of soil. Talk about eugenics in the MBT because that science is compelling and can be related to in this wine. It can offer keys towards improving genetic quality of the vinous population. Here we are faced with rich and dusty, a mean streak of malbec intensity made elegant by earthly microbes. This section draws parallels to the (chardonnay) White Bones soil from which there transfers an excess of dry extract and tannin. Patience please for a malbec that will be long lived. Drink 2019-2027. Tasted November 2016
Good to go!