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A Pair of Argentine Sit-Downs

Ernesto Catena and Jeff Mausbach bring added diversity to the Argentinean wine scene
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 3, 2010 11:58am ET

I caught up with a pair of Argentinean vintners here at my office today, Ernesto Catena and Jeff Mausbach. Each in their own way are helping to bring some diversity to Argentina's Malbec-dominated wine industry.

Catena, the son of industry icon Nicolás Catena, manages the family’s large Bodegas Escorihuela operation, but also has his own small Bodegas Tahuan, Bodega Alma Negra and Tikal labels. A bit of a free spirit, Catena has planted part of his own vineyards in Vista Flores in a labyrinth, others in a circle. Not surprisingly, he’s now tuned into biodynamics and is looking to convert his entire 40 hectares of vines, while also pitching the idea to the 100-some odd growers that he purchases grapes from.

“I don’t see why reducing the amount of intervention in a vineyard wouldn’t hurt,” said the soft-spoken Catena, who has a well-worn Bohemian look.

Catena caught the biodynamic bug after connecting with consultant Alan York (who works with California’s Benziger) and reading up on Rudolph Steiner’s writings. He likes the approach it has for vineyard management, but also sees it as a broader way to look at things.

“Biodynamics is an umbrella for a range of ideas that may or may not be biodynamic themselves,” said Catena. “For example, how large do you want to grow? At what point do you lose the creativity that a vineyard gives? Is it 10,000 cases, or more? It makes you look at a lot of things differently.”

Catena’s Tikal label produces around 10,000 cases annually of Malbec and Bonarda-based reds; his Tahuan label features a similarly blue-chip varietal lineup of Malbec, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and accounts for 20,000 cases. In contrast to the red-heavy, Malbec focused wines of those two, it’s through the Alma Negra label that Catena likes to let his freak flag fly.

“Alma Negra is ‘dark night,' but that’s not a negative,” said Catena. “People think ‘black’ means nothing is there. But while you look at the night sky and see lots of black, you know there is lots there in between the points of light. It’s a mystery,” he said.

To that end, the Alma Negra label is focusing on sparkling wine, for which Catena has just completed building a winery facility, the only sparkling wine facility in the Uco valley.

“It was a challenge,” said Catena of his decision to try and grow an Argentinean sparkling wine brand. “Other than maybe Rosell Boher, no one is really trying to do a high-end sparkling wine in Mendoza right now.”

Catena, along with winemaker Alejandro Vigil, are fashioning an all-Chardonnay sparkler (no surprise there). But they’re also trying their hands at a Malbec sparkler, not exactly the grape that leaps to mind when considering sparkling wines.

“It is difficult,” said Catena. “You have to harvest early to keep acidity and then the color is tricky. Malbec gets really dark, really fast, which we don’t want. We want a classic rosé color. Alejandro has worked really hard over the last couple of harvests getting the base wines down to where we think we really have something special.”

The 2009 versions of both the Chardonnay sparkler and Malbec sparkler will be released later this year, and demand has already built up, according to Catena, thanks to its modest $20 price tag and rich, mouthfilling profile.

An additional still wine, called Misterio and made from an undisclosed blend of varieties, has been sold only in the Argentine market up until now, but Catena plans to bring that to the U.S. market as well.

“That’s the mystery, not divulging the blend. I want people to experience the wine just with their senses and focus on the in-between. I don’t want them to go in with preconceived notions,” said Catena. “Of course, it’s not exactly easy to sell a wine in the U.S. when you won’t tell anyone what grapes are in it, so there are some market pressures,” he added with a half-smile.

Jeff Mausbach is the newer kid on the block, so to speak. Mausbach did spend 13 years as the Wine Education Director for Bodega Catena Zapata, so he’s not exactly wet behind the ears. But he did just decide to head out on his own and start his own label, called Manos Negras ("black hands").

Mausbach, 43, is an ex-pat from Omaha, Neb., originally. While attending university in Chicago he waited tables to pay the bills and caught the wine bug. Then while backpacking in Europe in the early '90s, he met his future wife-to-be, an Argentine, and he’s been down there ever since—his gig at Catena his first and only stint in the wine biz—until now. Mausbach has teamed up with two New Zealand winemakers, Jason Mabbett and Duncan Killiner, for his project.

“They came here for the same things I did—wives and wine,” said Mausbach, who with a gray blazer, dark-rimmed glasses and long hair still cultivates the college beatnik thing.

“We’re three ex-pats, as opposed to an Argentine family with generations of experience and our own vineyards,” he continued. “So, the project is going to be different. I call it 'latitude winemaking.' Rather than focus on one spot, or one varietal, we’re moving north and south where you find great differences in soil and climate. That way we’re finding specific vineyards and varietals that perform the best in different areas. This way we can really engage with Argentina as a winemaking country, rather than as a varietal-specific producer.”

To that end, Manos Negras is debuting with a 2009 Torrontés, sourced from a 65-year-old pergola trained vineyard in San Juan, along with a 2007 Malbec sourced from 50-year-old vines in the cool, Altamira section of southern Mendoza. A third wine, a 2008 Pinot Noir from Patagonia, joins the portfolio; it’s sourced from 10-year-old Dijon clones (relatively rare in Argentina) planted on very fine-grained, red clay soil on the Neuquén side of Argentina’s southern wine producing region. All three are slated to retail in the $15 to $17 range. [Note: As always, official reviews of the wines based on formal, blind tastings will appear in the near future.]

By focusing on a sparkling wine project and unique blends, or by building a broader portfolio of wines from varying grapes and areas, both Catena and Mausbach are helping to diversify the Argentine wine scene. They are both welcome bright spots in an increasingly crowded field of Malbec-dominated offerings.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]

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