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Argentina Aims High

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Argentina Aims High
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

How much would you spend for a bottle of wine from Argentina? How about $50?

That's the asking price for the new 1996 Catena Alta Malbec, the most expensive newly released wine ever to come from the land of Evita, tango and grass-fed beef. If that seems steep to you, you might consider the 1995 Chardonnay or the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon in the same line; they will hit the shelves at $45.

Right now, you may be shaking your head, scoffing at delusions of grandeur, or railing at runaway prices. I say, try the wines first. You might just change your mind.

I tasted all three last week over dinner at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. (The Malbec won't be released until spring 1998, while the other two should hit retail shelves before Christmas.) The delicious food certainly enhanced their appeal. But these wines are benchmarks -- of style, of quality, of regional character -- and they are produced in minuscule quantities. My guess is they will sell out in a heartbeat.

These are the first releases for Catena Alta, but there is a long and striking history behind them. They come from Bodegas Esmeralda, founded in the 19th century in Mendoza, the wine-growing capital of Argentina, by the Catena family. In the 1970s, the winery was selling 20 million bottles of wine per month. But after Nicholas Catena, now 57, visited California's Robert Mondavi Winery in 1982, he took aim at a different kind of success: world-class quality.

Catena, working with agronomist Pedro Marchevsky, winemaker Jose Galante and, especially, consulting winemaker Paul Hobbs from California, began the hard work that fine wine demands: identifying new and better vineyard sites; rounding up the best clones, mastering spacing and trellising and irrigation; investing in stainless steel and new wood; vinifying lot after lot in experiments designed to bring out the very best of the grapes and the terroir.

In 1990, the company released a new estate-bottled line, called simply Catena, the fruits of these efforts. They quickly impressed us here at Wine Spectator. The 1992 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon scored 91 points, the first outstanding red from Argentina. The 1993 Catena Chardonnay scored 89 points, the best white ever from the country. These were not rustic, traditional wines whose appeal came primarily from their authenticity. They were polished, ripe yet supple, utterly international in style. And they have continued to show well: The 1994 Cabernet scored 89 points, the 1995 Chardonnay 88.

The Catena wines cost around $15 per bottle, high for Argentina at the time. But the 3,000-case US allotments sold out well before the following vintage was released.

In 1994, I spent a week exploring Argentina's wineries, and paid a visit to Catena. I was impressed by the professionalism of the operation and the passion of Nicholas Catena and Marchevsky, his agronomist (see my article from the Nov. 15, 1995 issue). And I heard whispers about a new, super-Catena due in a year or two.

The rumors have become reality. The wines are in the bottle. Now wine lovers will decide whether Catena Alta is as "alta" in quality as it is in price.

The 1995 Catena Alta Chardonnay is estate-bottled from the 13-year-old, high-altitude Tupungato vineyard, southwest of Mendoza. It underwent whole-cluster fermentation with indigenous yeasts in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and aged in them for 12 months. Production was 7,200 bottles. The wine is opulent yet lively, with aromas of butter, toast and honey and tropical fruit flavors, well-integrated and firm as well as rich.

The 1994 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon is estate-bottled from the 14-year-old Agrelo vineyard, slightly lower in elevation than Tupungato. It aged for two years in 100 percent new French oak before bottling, without filtration; production was 2,400 bottles. It's polished, harmonious and refreshing, with aromas of berries, toast and tobacco and complex flavors of plums, black olive and herbs. Well-integrated tannins make it accessible now, but it should improve for four to six years in bottle.

Both of these were delicious. But the 1996 Catena Alta Malbec was my favorite. Produced from 70-year-old vines in the Lunlunta vineyard near Mendoza (with 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon), it is vibrant, rich and distinctive. It has an inky color, alluring aromas of chocolate, plums and spices, and rich yet incredibly vibrant flavors that simply ooze with ripe fruit. Production was 10,800 bottles.

I won't predict what these wines will score in the blind tastings that await them. On first impression, they're a definite step up from the already high standards of the regular Catena line. But I can tell you what they mean to the people who produced them. When I mentioned that the Chardonnay reminded me of the opulent California style, and the Cab more of the restrained elegance of Bordeaux, I meant to compliment them. But Marchevsky, his eyes shining, disdained the comparisons.

"These are Argentine wines," proclaimed the 25-year veteran of Bodegas Esmeralda. "Our grapes. Our soil. Our yeast. Our wine. They are the result of years of research and experimentation. We are making wines that could only come from one place in the world."

Too often, I think, we unconsciously denigrate wines from "second-tier" growing regions by asking them to be true rather than good. If they are too modern, too sophisticated, then somehow they are betraying their traditional roots and are condemned as Bordeaux wannabes, or California clones.

Catena Alta begs to differ. Nicholas Catena and his team believe that they can play in the big leagues -- and merit big-league prices. Only time will tell whether wine lovers will accept them into this elite group, and only a track record of top wines year after year will truly demonstrate the success of Catena's efforts. But this debut on the world stage will happen only once. If you are curious, passionate, a gambler -- well, you might want to buy a ticket to the show.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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