In Argentina, Bodega Catena Zapata is the undisputed heavyweight champ. The winery, led by Nicolás Catena, is the equivalent of the Rhône’s E. Guigal: a multi-generation, family-owned winery that is clearly the industry leader, yet never rests on its laurels. Those who grumble about its dominating position in the Argentine wine industry are usually those who are trying to play catch up. Catena’s operation is the engine that drives quality in Argentina.
So, with that in mind, I’m more than happy to spend a day tasting Catena’s latest wines, which consistently earn outstanding and classic ratings, while also visiting Catena’s vineyards, where something interesting is always happening.
Catena has always been working in the vineyards and now Team Alejandro is in charge. That’s Alejandro Sejanovich, 40, the head viticulturist who started at the winery in 1994, along with Alejandro Vigil, 34, head winemaker, who started at the winery in 2002. While the two have distinct titles, their job responsibilities overlap—they’re both coviticulturists and winemakers, and they work closely together in the vineyards and winery. And both take the same analytical approach to wine. They always start with a theory when they approach a problem, but they also aren’t afraid to take risks, which fits right in line with the approach of Catena, a former economics professor, and his daughter Laura, whose day job when not working at the winery or on her own Luca label, is as an emergency room physician in San Francisco.
The Catenas and Team Alejandro know that all great wines start in the vineyards, so it’s no surprise that the winery has some of the best and most important vineyards in Mendoza.
I started the day in the Angelica vineyard in Lunlunta, an 80-hectare parcel that runs along the Mendoza river and provides the basis for all of the winery’s plantings. It’s in this vineyard that Catena began to isolate the specific Malbec clones he wanted to work with and today the parcel is still the mother block for all of the winery’s new plantings of Malbec vines. Check out the accompanying video to see just how much clonal diversity is in the vineyard.
Today, both Vigil and Sejanovich work with the best clones and continue to experiment.
“There isn’t a single superclone,” said Sejanovich. “You need diversity, that’s how you get a super wine.”
So Team Alejandro uses microvinifications of different clones grown under different conditions, sometimes cofermented with other varieties, all aimed at charting how different flavors, aromas and tannin structures can be achieved. Using the results, they then work to craft some of the best Malbecs in Argentina—rich, creamy, full-throttle wines that also show great drive and balance.
Back at the winery, we tasted through the components of the various 2006 cuvées, and it’s clear that the winery is upping its game. After tasting through the individual clones from the Adrianna vineyard (one shows round, juicy fruit; another pure, driven licorice notes; yet another tight, compact tannins) we then move on to taste the wines vinified from the Nicasia vineyard, located in the Altamira region of La Consulta. With its cool, southern location, the Altamira area (the same area where Áchaval-Ferrer’s Finca Altamira comes from) produces wines with precision and balance along with racy blue and black fruits. For me, this is the filet mignon of high-end Malbec production in Mendoza (Laura Catena’s Luca Nico bottling is also sourced from vineyards in this area). The Malbecs from the Nicasia vineyard go into Catena Zapata’s Malbec Argentino bottling, as well as the Catena Zapata flagship blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
A sample of straight Malbec from Nicasia shows terrific focus, with superb raspberry ganache, fig, mocha and blueberry notes. It’s an absolute stunner in the making and in an unabashed, ultramodern style.
“And that’s exactly the idea,” said Vigil when I give him my description.
As we taste the Cabernet/Malbec blend, Vigil said, “The idea for this wine is not to taste Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. Harmony of flavors is the ideal.”
Both wines offer potentially classic quality.
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