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The Guigal of Argentina and Team Alejandro

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 24, 2008 10:48am ET

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.

In Mendoza, the asado (open-fire grill) is a way of life. Chivo (goat) is as popular as beef, and it always tastes better in the vineyard …
As if the work in the Angelica vineyard wasn’t enough, in the high-altitude Adrianna vineyard, a 115-hectare parcel that Laura considers the crème de la crème of the winery’s vineyards, rows of vines that could produce fruit good enough for the flagship wines are instead earmarked for more trials. Cluster thinning, leaf pulling and more are being performed in varying amounts here, to see their final effect on the quality of the fruit. It’s the kind of commitment to quality that defines the entire Catena operation, from the top wines on down through the tasty value-priced bottlings from their Alamos winery.

That commitment extends through Laura Catena’s own Luca line, which has steadily moved away from sharing fruit sources with the Catena Zapata operation to sourcing its own fruit from forgotten parcels of vines. Many Mendocians own a parcel of vines which surround the equivalent of a weekend house. These parcels are almost never sold, but instead passed down from generation to generation—a weekend house in the country is an important part of family life here. But until recently, most of these parcels saw their grapes go into nondescript bulk wines. Now, Laura Catena is working to isolate some of the best parcels for inclusion in her label and she’s noted a change in attitude among the "weekend growers."

“Ten years ago they only cared if they got paid for their grapes,” explained Catena. “Now they want that case of wine more than anything,” she said, referring to the end product that the grapes wind up in. Pride of production is starting to take hold among Mendoza’s many weekend growers. A prerelease sample of the Luca Malbec Nico 2005 shows amazing depth, with black licorice, mission fig and graphite flavors that just won’t quit.

Ernesto Catena, Laura’s brother, also has his own operation, which includes the Tikal, Alma Negra and Siesta labels, all made with the help of viticulturist/winemaker Luis Reginato. While Laura exhibits go-getter energy and business savvy, Ernesto plays the languid bohemian in the family. When I meet him in the midst of his Tikal vineyards, we walk through the vines, not unusual for me when I meet a vintner. But in this case, the vines are planted in a labyrinth pattern, complete with dead ends and false rows.

As we walked aimlessly around in hopes of finding the center of the maze, Ernesto gave me his version of the classic Chevy Chase character in Caddyshack.

“I’m not a technician. I say instead of making the wine, be the wine,” he said.

We wind up coming out of the labyrinth where we entered, not a success but not exactly a failure either. When I asked Ernesto if he was the black sheep of the family, he paused before answering, “I haven’t been that bad, but I guess compared to my sister ... More than a black sheep though, I’m just the anti-business guy. I try to do everything without regard to profit. Of course, I know that can’t be done forever."

Ernesto is, like his father, a former economist, and he also doubles as the director of the Bodegas Escorihuela winery. His own Tikal wines are superplush in style (the Siesta and Alma Negra wines are not yet released). He's a self-professed hedonist who just wants to make and drink wine that tastes good. And in that vein, the family ties run deep.

Emilio R Nunez
March 31, 2008 5:14pm ET
James,Thanks for the great blogs from Argentina. I was also just down in Buenos Aires on Easter and in Mendoza all last week. We were at Catena Zapata on the 26th. I was curious as to what you thought about the Angelica Zapata Alta line of wines as compared to the Alta line that is exported to the States. We were big fans of the Angelica Alta Malbec. Also, we drank quite a bit of wines from Achaval-Ferrer including a magnum of the 2004 Bella Vista and the 2003 Finca Mirador. They were really beautiful. We didn't get a chance to taste any Luca while down there, but I'm looking forward to giving it a try. Unfortunately, we're back in New York now, but I'll be following along the blog as you head down South into Patagonia.
James Molesworth
April 1, 2008 9:14am ET
Emilio: The Angelica Zapata line is Catena's equivalent of the Alta line, but it is available only in Argentina. There are slight difference in the vineyard blocks used for the Angelica Zapata wines - in the case of the Malbec for example, one out of six blocks is different. I don't usually taste them, since they are not in the U.S. market.
Alexandre De Azara
SAO PAULO BRAZIL —  April 10, 2008 2:46pm ET
James, altough they have one vineyard block difference, they taste very different. In Brazil we have them both. Angelica is more fruity and oaky, Catena Alta more elegant. I tend to preferer the later. What do you think?
James Molesworth
April 10, 2008 2:51pm ET
Alexandre: I don't usually taste the wines they make for the Argentine market, so I couldn't comment...
Alexandre De Azara
SAO PAULO BRAZIL —  April 11, 2008 1:49pm ET
thankslooking forward for the report after your recent trip.
James Molesworth
April 11, 2008 1:55pm ET
Alexandre: Fyi, the blog is the report for the trip, since Argentina was just covered back in the Dec. 15 issue and Chile is covered in the current May 15 issue (written before my trip)...reports on all the regions we cover are annual and are usually in the same issue from year to year...

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