In the past few decades, many pioneers have helped put Argentina's wines on the world stage. One of them is Bodega Catena Zapata director of winemaking Alejandro Vigil.
Born and raised in Mendoza, Vigil, 48, says wine was his destiny. Shortly after getting his start at Zapata in 2001, Vigil joined forces with the winery's proprietor, Dr. Laura Catena, to help develop the Catena Institute of Wine, an Argentine enology research program which earlier this year published findings on how the soils in which vines grow leave an indelible stamp on wine. Apart from his work at Zapata, Vigil also oversees some of Dr. Catena's smaller wine projects including Luca Wines and Domaine Nico, along with his own Cabernet Franc label, El Enemigo, which he started with Nicolás Catena's youngest daughter, Adrianna.
Vigil recently spoke to Wine Spectator assistant editor Shawn Zylberberg about forging his winemaking path in Mendoza, how he landed at Catena Zapata and his first experience tasting Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in wine?
Alejandro Vigil: The way I define my wine journey is there was never a "Plan B." I was born in the vineyard and the farms, making wine at a small vineyard at my grandfather's house. He would make wine and sell it on Saturdays to his neighbors, serving it out of 5-liter bottles. My grandma sold empanadas alongside him. From 4 years old, I started my first experience of working the land, where I worked from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the vineyard all summer until I was 16 years old. There, I began to understand the concept that became fundamental for me: Put the landscape in the bottle.
In high school, I studied chemistry. When I started college everyone thought I would do chemical engineering, but when I came back home from signing up for my classes, I told my mom I signed up for agronomy. She started crying and told me, "I never thought you'd study chemistry! Your whole life you've done this [wine]." My mom was so emotional and happy. She always saw me in the vineyards and not the laboratory. It's what she ultimately wanted for me.
It was already destiny. Another possibility didn't exist. And that's how I live all the time. My life is a search, from the time my sense of reason was formed, to work with the land and wine.
WS: What brought you to Catena?
AV: I studied at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) in Mendoza. I needed work, so I knocked on my professor's door and I began studying soils and drainage as an intern. I had one wine project that included studying Malbec in different agronomic locations and that put me in contact with local wineries. They would donate 100 kilograms of grapes from different vineyards and I would report on the soil, climate and characteristics of the wines. One of the bodegas I worked with was Catena Zapata. As I worked more with the people at Catena, they asked me, "Why don't you come here and help build the Catena Institute of Wine?" Finally, I decided to join in 2001.
WS: What was the first wine you made at Catena?
AV: The 2001 Nicolás Catena Zapata red blend.
WS: How has your winemaking journey changed since then?
AV: When I started, I had worked more in the vineyard than the actual winery. I spent 10 years learning from my direct boss and winemaker Alejandro Sejanovich, and we spent the first few years exploring single-vineyard projects that went commercial in 2004. I remember doing 2,400 microvinifications and at one point, there weren't enough bins for harvest because I used them in bodegas to vinify wines! Our single-vineyard projects today, such as Domaine Nico Pinot Noir and Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay, took us many years. Understanding the vineyard has made it a long journey and these are the projects that take the most time.
WS: What other wine regions have you explored?
AV: I would often go to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa, Australia and other regions a few times a year. That for me has been a point of inflection and new point of view personally and professionally. As an Argentine winemaker, I had a [perception] of Bordeaux and Napa, and I discovered the possibilities through my early visits to Joseph Phelps, Caymus, Lewis Cellars, Opus One and Harlan Estate. The good thing about Argentina is you can also have these styles.
WS: What do you like to drink?
AV: My favorite wines are from Burgundy. Domaine Roulot is my favorite and I think it is the north star for white wine in Burgundy … The first Domaine de la Romanée-Conti I tried was in Burgundy in 2003. I was visiting with several winemakers and was invited to the house of a local barrel maker. We were allowed to choose whichever wine to drink from his cellar. As Argentineans at that time, we always went for the Cheval-Blanc, Pétrus and Lafite, but I was with the Bodega Norton winemaker Jorge Riccitelli, and when we walked down to the cellar, we saw DRCs in a hidden area. Few people in Argentina knew about it … so I took a 1984 La Tâche. When Jorge showed the owner the bottle, he was stunned! We served a little in each glass, but no one appreciated it, so me and Jorge got the bottle and snuck out to the patio to drink the rest.
Since then I've done a four-year vertical with Aubert de Villaine at one point and also had a fun experience at Villa Mas restaurant near Barcelona. During our meal, someone ordered a magnum of 2005 DRC. I thought, "I can't pay for this!" I called Dr. Laura Catena and told her, "I'd pay this much and you'll have my letter of resignation." I called my wife and told her I just spent €76,000 on a meal and I'm not coming back, or I'm just going to jump in the ocean. At the end of the night, the restaurant owner Carlos Orta says, "The wines are my gift." So I started grabbing everything on the table!
Both wine experiences were incredible, but the '84 opened a new way of thinking. It changed the way I see wine and my passion for Burgundy.
WS: You're very active on social media. Why is that?
AV: It's a way to expose my wines to the consumer directly. Before, how could we get to the consumer? Through a magazine or newsletter. Social media is a direct and simple way to write something and answer questions. It also offers a chance to show what life we live every day. We're not fancy people and it's good to communicate the different aspects of winemaking. With social media you have access to whatever part of the world and a back and forth with the consumer. People ask me questions all day and I typically answer [between trips] from vineyard to vineyard.
WS: What's the most important quality for a winemaker?
AV: One of the fundamental points is the ability to understand and appreciate a place; to live harvest-to-harvest and find a definition of terroir through tireless repetition. That experience is what leads to the famous saying of putting the landscape in the wine. There's no rules, and we should adapt to our place that allows us to achieve quality.
WS: What's next for Argentine wine?
AV: 2021, for me, is one of the best vintages in Malbec's history, and for Chardonnay and white varieties in general. All the evolution I'm seeing is impressive. We cultivate in Pampa, near Rio Colorado and Rio Negro, San Juan, La Rioja and Cafayate. I am exploring as much as I can in Argentina since the diversity we have is not being explored enough. Going east will give us opportunities for new varieties, and we have much to do to grow.