I sat down with Nicolás Catena last week to talk about the latest things happening in Argentina and at his own Bodega Catena Zapata winery. Catena, the industry leader for Argentina, is professorial in demeanor (not surprising, since he is also an economics professor). He's soft-spoken and measured, often beginning his sentences by saying, "My theory is..." and ending them with “therefore, the conclusion is..."
For this visit, I had asked him to bring an older wine and a younger wine to help fuel our conversation. For the older wine, Catena brought his ’96 Alta Malbec, the debut vintage of his top Malbec bottling.
The wine smelled like an older Cabernet from a hot vintage, with tar and cedar notes. It still had the polish of Argentine Malbec on the palate, though the vivid fruit had softened with age. While time hadn't improved the wine—only changed it—it hadn't been unkind either. The wine was still balanced, with pure fruit and a distinct profile.
"It surprised me," said Catena. "I thought after 10 years it would have been finished."
For the new wine, Catena brought his not-yet-released Malbec Argentino. The wine is a blend of his best grapes from three different vineyards—the Adrianna, at an elevation of over 4,700 feet; the Nicasia vineyard in Altamira and the Angelica vineyard in Lunlunta. It spends 17 months in entirely new French oak, and the paltry 300 cases which were produced will be released in March, at a price point equivalent to the winery’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend.
The wine is simply loaded with blue and purple fruit and floral notes, along with layers of tar, graphite, spice and toast. It's one of the most impressive young Malbecs I have ever tasted, and is easily on a level with the country's top wines from Achával-Ferrer and Viña Cobos.
What is most impressive about the wine to me, however, is that it's a function of years of hard work. Over the last two decades, Catena has exhaustively researched Malbec in Argentina—its clones, which sites it prefers, how it blends with other grapes. Catena's Malbec has made both blends and single vineyard bottlings, charting the wine's evolution.
Yes, Catena’s new Malbec Argentino comes in a heavy bottle with a lofty price tag—that's de rigueur for high-end wine these days. But it's not the result of grapes sourced from a recently-planted vineyard in a hot, up-and-coming wine region backed by a slick marketing campaign.
It's been quite the effort, considering Catena initially thought Cabernet Sauvignon would be the way to go— 20 years ago, he didn’t think Malbec could be a stand alone varietal with world class quality.
But now, nearly a generation later, Catena is not only a believer in Malbec, but a leader as well. Thanks to a lot of hard work, patience and an excellent winemaker in José Galante, his new Malbec Argentino proves it.
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