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A Sit Down With Nicolás Catena

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 13, 2006 9:48am ET

I sat down with Nicolás Catena last week to talk about the latest things happening in Argentina and at his own Bodega Catena Zapata winery. Catena, the industry leader for Argentina, is professorial in demeanor (not surprising, since he is also an economics professor). He's soft-spoken and measured, often beginning his sentences by saying, "My theory is..." and ending them with “therefore, the conclusion is..."

For this visit, I had asked him to bring an older wine and a younger wine to help fuel our conversation. For the older wine, Catena brought his ’96 Alta Malbec, the debut vintage of his top Malbec bottling.

The wine smelled like an older Cabernet from a hot vintage, with tar and cedar notes. It still had the polish of Argentine Malbec on the palate, though the vivid fruit had softened with age. While time hadn't improved the wine—only changed it—it hadn't been unkind either. The wine was still balanced, with pure fruit and a distinct profile.

"It surprised me," said Catena. "I thought after 10 years it would have been finished."

For the new wine, Catena brought his not-yet-released Malbec Argentino. The wine is a blend of his best grapes from three different vineyards—the Adrianna, at an elevation of over 4,700 feet; the Nicasia vineyard in Altamira and the Angelica vineyard in Lunlunta. It spends 17 months in entirely new French oak, and the paltry 300 cases which were produced will be released in March, at a price point equivalent to the winery’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend.

The wine is simply loaded with blue and purple fruit and floral notes, along with layers of tar, graphite, spice and toast. It's one of the most impressive young Malbecs I have ever tasted, and is easily on a level with the country's top wines from Achával-Ferrer and Viña Cobos.

What is most impressive about the wine to me, however, is that it's a function of years of hard work. Over the last two decades, Catena has exhaustively researched Malbec in Argentina—its clones, which sites it prefers, how it blends with other grapes. Catena's Malbec has made both blends and single vineyard bottlings, charting the wine's evolution.

Yes, Catena’s new Malbec Argentino comes in a heavy bottle with a lofty price tag—that's de rigueur for high-end wine these days. But it's not the result of grapes sourced from a recently-planted vineyard in a hot, up-and-coming wine region backed by a slick marketing campaign.

It's been quite the effort, considering Catena initially thought Cabernet Sauvignon would be the way to go— 20 years ago, he didn’t think Malbec could be a stand alone varietal with world class quality.

But now, nearly a generation later, Catena is not only a believer in Malbec, but a leader as well. Thanks to a lot of hard work, patience and an excellent winemaker in José Galante, his new Malbec Argentino proves it.

Fred Brown
December 13, 2006 9:35pm ET
James, as a Malbec lover, I thank you for the post. I do have a question about your statement that the "Alta" is Cantena's top Malbec. While in Argentina this spring, I bought two bottles of the 2002 Alta Malbec, Angelica Zapata. At the wine shop where I picked this up, it was described as being situated between the Alta and the Nicholos Catena. The two bottles are still in my cooler, so I have not yet compared them to the standard Alta. Can you shed any light on the difference?thanks,Fred
James Molesworth
December 14, 2006 10:03am ET

The Catena line can be a bit confusing, and there are wines for export markets different from those sold in Argentina.

The top wine is the Catena Zapata, a Cabernet-Malbec blend that retails for about $90.

Next is the Alta line of varietals, which includes Malbec, Cabernet and Chardonnay. The labels are white background, with a picture of a vine branch running across. Earlier vintages of the Alta line also listed the name of the vineyard on the label—such as Angelica for the Malbec and Adrianna for the Chardonnay—but these were dropped in recent vintages for the wines sent to export markets. The Alta line retails for about $45 in the US.

The wine you have is the Alta wine, but with a label (beige I believe) for the Argentine market, with the name Angelica Zapata. It is a slightly different blend from the Alta Malbec in the US—basically the same vineyards but some different blocks.

The Alta Malbec in the US is a blend of five sources—Lot 18, Angélica Vineyard in Lunlunta district; Lot 4, La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo; Lot 3 and Lot 9 from the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary and Lot 1 from the Altamira Vineyard in Altamira.

The Angelica Zapata Malbec sold in Argentina is a blend of the first four lots as above, but with Lot 2 from the La Consulta vineyard in La Consulta instead of the Altamira lot.
James Molesworth
December 14, 2006 10:05am ET

In addition, at the same price point ($45) as the Alta line are the single vineyard bottlings of Malbec that debuted in the '02 vintage. These are very limited production wines and there are only two of them—the Catena Viñas Altamira Lot 1 and Catena Viñas Adrianna Lot 3. While both of these vineyards are part of the blend that makes up the Alta bottling for the export markets as described above, but Catena also bottles about 250 cases of these two vineyards separately because he feels they are distinct enough on their own as well.

The next step down is the Catena line, which retails for about $18-20, and below that, the Alamos line, which retails for about $10. (There's also a new Alamos Seleccion Malbec for $15).
Fred Brown
December 14, 2006 8:49pm ET
James,Thanks for the explanation. I have the 2003 US distribution Alta, so I won't be able to compare it directly to the 2002 Argentinean Angelica bottles. It would have been interesting to see if the slight variation in grape sources was detectable. We plan to travel in Patagonia in Jan '08, and I'll have to try to get some of both the US and Argentinean wines of the same vintage.Fred
Alexandre De Azara
SAO PAULO BRAZIL —  December 19, 2006 12:28am ET
James,I have boyh wines in my house and they are sold in Brazil with different prices. the Alta is a much more elegant wine (The best Malbec i¿ve tasted so far). The other is a more strong and powerful wine (in line with argentineans and brazilians taste). I did not know that the difference was just one lot. AMAZING! For barbecue and beef (ANGELICA) for Lamb, roast meat or argentinean sausage Catena Alta. Simply the best!

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