I recently sat down with Laura Catena, the vice-president of Argentina’s Bodega Catena Zapata winery (where she works with her father, Nicolás Catena) as well as owner of her own Luca winery. The topic: aging wines.
It’s a topic I’ve discussed here before, but one I never get tired of. Not only do people have different viewpoints on aging wines, but also wines from different wine regions age differently, adding plenty of variables to the mix.
I’ve been on the record as saying there’s a difference between wines that age versus those that simply endure. Wines that age are wines that require cellaring to show all the complexity they have—these wines are in the distinct minority. In contrast, wines that endure are well made and balanced enough to avoid falling apart, but don’t necessarily evolve into something better.
It's a distinction that I don't think gets made enough by critics and consumers alike. All too often, wine is still judged vis a vis the old Bordeaux paradigm that said a wine must be able to age in order for it to be a great wine.
Today's best Argentinean wines are at the center of this debate. The top Malbecs and red blends currently being made by producers including Catena, Achával-Ferrer, Viña Cobos and others only have a track record of a decade at most, so we’ve yet to see how they develop over the long term. And while I’ve seen some critics lavishing these wines with multi-decade drink windows (perhaps to make their reviews seem legitimate), I just don’t see it that way.
For me, the best Argentinean wines offer gorgeous fruit when young—they’re big but accessible. They develop nicely over a few short years, but don’t merit extended aging in my opinion. Part of the reason may be because Argentinean reds have such supple tannins, they don’t seem to polymerize the way Bordeaux or Rhône tannins do over time, precipitating out of the wine while the fruit and minerality meld together, allowing wines from those regions to develop into something else. Instead, as the fruit in an Argentinean wine recedes slightly while aging, nothing fills in the space left behind and the wines begin to lose their vivacity. They endure (when well made) but I don't see them developing into something else that would necessarily require cellaring.
But these are just differences between the way these various wines age, not an indication of quality. I think the paradigm of comparing everything to long-lived Bordeaux is long over with; even the Bordelais now fashion their wines with rounder tannins that show better integration when young.
To fuel our discussion, Catena brought with her both an older white and red. We started with the Bodega Catena Zapata Chardonnay Mendoza Alta 2004, which was fully mature, with lots of hazelnut and creamed pineapple notes laid over a round frame. The finish still had some fresh minerality and was nicely persistent, but I found it more evolved than I would expect a good premier cru white Burgundy to be at a similar age.
I rated the Catena Chard on this day 92 points, non-blind, in step with other vintages of the Catena Alta Chardonnay I’ve reviewed over the years and equivalent to where many good premier cru white Burgundies are. The fact that the Catena is more mature now doesn't make it less of a wine, it's just aging on a different track.
“I don’t think we knew enough about this vineyard or Chardonnay in general when we made this wine to say we tried to make something that could age,” said Catena.
Now with several vintages under their belt for the Alta line of wines (started in ’95), Catena notes they are making some tweaks on the Chardonnay. There’s been less new oak in recent vintages, as well as more reductive winemaking (more lees contact, less bâtonnage) as she and her father are aiming to make wines that can truly age, rather than just endure.
“My father and I grew up in the generation where aging wine was thought to be the way wine was. We enjoy drinking older wines,” she said.
And to that end, following some micro-vinifications from the Adrianna vineyard where they source their top Chardonnay, the Catenas are also now focusing on earlier harvesting.
Earlier harvesting? When’s the last time you heard that from a winery?
“It’s two degrees less in temperature than anything else you’ll find in Mendoza,” said Catena of the vineyard, located on the western side of Mendoza at 4,800 feet of elevation. “It’s a Zone 1 in degree days, but with a lot more sunlight than a typical Zone 1 area, such as Burgundy. So if we harvest into April, we don’t get overripe fruit, because the Brix doesn’t really go up much. But we find that we do lose some of the minerality and floral freshness that we’re looking for. So we’re going to harvest earlier to maintain that freshness.”
We then tried the Bodega Catena Zapata Nicolás Catena Zapata Mendoza 2001, a 52/48 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec that I rated 92 points officially on release in the Sept. 30, 2005, issue. At the time, I gave the wine a drink recommendation of "now through 2008," a three year window that to some folks might have seemed overly conservative at the time.
But today the wine is very open, with cedar, roasted vanilla, fig and blackberry notes backed by a lingering graphite hint. The oak has softened and the fruit is graceful and pure, but starting to recede just a bit. I found it consistent with my original review—it hasn’t fallen apart by any stretch, but I don’t see it developing into anything significantly different or better from here on out, a point that Catena partially agreed with.
“I agree that an Argentine wine is not going to develop on the palate with [extended] time in the cellar,” she said. “It will develop aromatically though. And that’s a personal preference, deciding when you want to drink the wine.”
Catena noted that she likes tertiary aromas and the hint of oxidation that comes with aging red wines for longer periods, again, a matter of personal preference.
When it comes to wine, I feel Argentina’s strong suit is its exuberant fruit. The best wines deliver complex and layered fruit flavors without being jammy, heavy or overwrought—the expression of Argentinean terroir. That doesn’t make Argentina any less of a quality wine region. It just makes Argentina different.