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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Sit Down with Laura Catena

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 3, 2009 9:57am ET

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.

Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  April 4, 2009 8:49am ET
James:I know this is off-subject for this current blog entry, but I was wondering if you could offer recommendations for wineries to visit in and around Chateauneuf-du-Pape for persons visiting the area for the first time (we have a small group staying in Avignon for a few days and I'm in charge of setting up some tastings). I've already arranged visits to Beaucastel, Pegau, and Domaine de la Solitude and have inquiries in at Julienne and Vieux Telegraphe. What others would you (or anyone else reading the blog, for that matter) suggest? Thanks...and keep up the great work!
James Molesworth
April 4, 2009 9:35am ET
Jim: For restaurants/places to stay, you might want to check out the cover story we did a a couple of years ago:

http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,5547,00.html

As for wineries to visit, I don't like to play favorites so hard for me to give specifics...Visit who you like, always call ahead - those are the two keys rules. You've got a good list going there. Though the place is decidedly un-Napa like, others with 'tasting rooms' include the Coulon brothers at Domaine de Beaurenard, Vacheron-Pouizin and Paul Autard.

Don't get locked in to CdP though - if you have time, get out to Gigondas (or some of the other villages). Restaurant L'Oustalet in Gigondas is lovely, and the small town square is a nice place to linger after a couple of morning appointments...
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  April 4, 2009 11:05am ET
James: Thanks for the great suggestions (we're bringing along that very issue of Spectator as a reference, as well as several of your recent articles for people in the group to read). Since we have a range of wine geekiness represented in our group (my wife and I being toward the top end of that scale), I wanted to include some widely recognizable names like Telegraphe and Beaucastel so people would be able to make the connection when they come back to the States. We are, in fact, planning to venture off the beaten track as time permits (not that my wife and I don't enjoy our visits to Napa - we actually got married at Peju - but we much prefer the sorts of "un-Napa like" places to which you're referring). Thanks again!
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
April 4, 2009 11:51am ET
James:

This is a nice blog entry. What wonderful opportunity to sit down with Laura to discuss such an interesting matter. I fully agree with you. I mean, Argentina wines/terroir is different from any other region. This, of course could affect the results of any wine been harvested/processed/bottled. I'm not fully sure what are the considerations/tacticals to be taken into account for a wine to been done for long aging -I am a wine lower and far, to much far from being an expert- but, for sure Argentina can produce wines with a classic profile, Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira 2006 comes to mind. A wine with a aging window of 10-15 years. I would be an interesting exercise to see how well the wine will be in 2015-2020 -I think I will save one of the bottles I have to see how it will be. But anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say here is -and in agreement with you- that Argentina is producing now really good wines that can develop nicely with some age without a long term aging (20-25 years or more). Unless some in Argentina is doing what Max Schubert did when he created Grange, Classic wines from Argentina have their own, nice and delicious personality you can enjoy 5 years after havervesting and I'm Glad for that.
James Molesworth
April 4, 2009 4:13pm ET
Johnny: I think the Achaval-Ferrer wines might go longer than most of those from Argentina, as they tend to emphasize their acidity more....I've got bottles back to the '02 vintage in my own cellar, which I am going to push to see how they develop. That's all part of the fun of wine...
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  April 4, 2009 11:09pm ET
James, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Laura Cantena at a tasting held at the Ritz Carlton in Grand Cayman in January of this year. My first exposure to Cantena wines. Very impressed. Based on the price, they blew away the majority of Califorina wines. Nice story.
Sebastian Zugman
mexico df / mexico —  April 5, 2009 9:15am ET
James, good post indeed. Having said that I believe you should have also noted style differences amongst differenty wine producers (the weinerts, mendels, cheval des andes styles, more restrained, higher acidity, less extraction, etc) vs the wineries that emphasize the fruit and power (cobos and the likes). the point that I am trying to make is that even within similar terroirs you will end up having most likely different aging potentials due to winemaking differences..thanks for the post
Peter Toot
April 5, 2009 11:30am ET
James-I live in Argentina and produce wine under the Los Vencejos label. I was interested in your thoughtful blog and largely agree with your conclusions. The climate (perhaps more diverse than many believe) and, more importantly, marketing and stylistic preferences have meant that Argentine wines have not been made to age extensively. I think, however, as the industry evolves, more producers might begin to explore the possibility of making truly age-worthy wines. Given the limitations of space in your blog, I understand and agree with your assessment but I would leave the door open to the possibility of some interesting surprises in the future. Thanks.
James Molesworth
April 5, 2009 3:35pm ET
Sebastian: Good point - style certainly makes a difference. Though I'd say Weinert wines endure more than develop - they tend to be oxidized in the first place. The winery keeps telling me they've changed/updated their style and and they keep promising to send me samples - but they never follow up.

Cheval des Andes is half Cabernet - so different aging paradigm than a pure Malbec. Plus I find they make the wine in a more Bdx style too - it's a good ager though I don't see it 'blossoming' with time.

Mendel is using some higher altitude vineyards - the wines are definitely in a fresher, purer style. That could be the difference maker in the long run for Mendoza wineries - those who have some Altamira fruit in their wines might see a different aging curve...

Peter The door is always open! Things can and do change over time. For all the advances made in Argentina over the last 10 years, there is still so much to be done...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  April 6, 2009 1:36pm ET
As a rule, New World wines do not improve with age as they often lose their vibrant fruitiness (which is their appeal, IMHO) -- this is a function Brix, ETOH, acidity, pH, vinicultural practices and other unknown factors (compared to the Old World-- where harvest rains, cooler temperatures often prevent optimal [or excessive] ripeness) . For higher end wines from Argentina, USA, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, I generally recommend drinking from 3-7 years from the vintage date (so now, I am drinking mostly 2004/2005s). There are always exceptions of course (I had a mind blowing 1997 Heitz Cellars marthas Vineyard Cab a few weeks ago--this wine has tons of life left and I am sure will continue to improve as it sheds its still ample tannins) but I have rarely been disappointed when I follow the above rule. In terms of Catena and Luca -- always great wines with a great QPR--my cellar is full of them
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  April 7, 2009 5:25pm ET
TO JIM MC CUSKER;while at CDP please go to the small village of tavel and visit domaine de la mordoree. the instalations are so so but the wine amazing and having lunch in one of the terrase of the village is a cool experience. cheers!
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  April 8, 2009 5:46pm ET
Dear Anacleto:Thank you very much for the suggestion: I'll definitely check it out. Cheers to you!

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