Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Image is all important in the wine business. Unless there are positive identifications with a country or region some of its wines may be of outstanding quality, but consumers and critics alike remain indifferent. What’s interesting is how often the emergence of a regional industry from obscurity is associated with a single heroic personality whose quest for greatness seems to personify it.
Like Robert Mondavi before him in the 197Os and Angelo Gaja in the 198Os, Nicolas Catena has been the driving force elevating the perception of his nation’s wines on the international stage. Giants all, each set out to focus attention on the uniqueness of a region and ended up elevating their entire country’s reputation as a result. Looking back it may be easy to reconstruct their route to success, but at the time these producers originally committed to pursuing excellence on an international stage, the results were by no means assured. Each had vision, as well as resources and communications savvy, that enabled them to move forward on a broad front.
If import figures to the US are indicative, what happened decades ago with California and Italy is repeating itself – now it is Argentina’s time. In a down year when Americans turned away from most imported wine in a dramatic reversal of long established trends, wracked by a weak dollar and a recession of historic proportions, we discovered Argentina. Up approximately 35% off a relatively large base, with most of the increase in Malbec, this is a shining success story in an otherwise gloomy picture. Argentina suddenly, overnight it seems, is hot.
Why? Most consumers buying Malbec have never heard of Nicolas Catena or his winery; many don’t know or care much about what makes Argentina or its signature grape unique. They’re just attracted to Argentine wine without being able to articulate why. When drinking Malbec they find the flavors, style and price pleasing. It compares favorably to what they normally order. They spread the word and come back for more. There’s something in the air. Much in the same way that neither California nor Italy had much cachet long ago when French wines dominated the US market, something started happening that felt underground the last few years until it reached into the larger wine drinking culture in 2OO8. Argentina is creating an opening and establishing its credentials.
Is this a trend that has staying power or is Argentine Malbec just a flash in the pan? An unanswerable question, but my bet would be that we are seeing the birth of a force on the market rather than a rising star that will burn itself out. Why? Largely because the story of high elevation mountain vineyards in a remote region of the world and a little known blending partner grape that was being uprooted until its potential was recently recognized are real. Largely because of how specific the wines are, how integrally related the quality is to the place, so that they can’t simply be duplicated by formula elsewhere. Largely because there was Nicolas Catena who dared to invest in researching the best techniques of growing and vinifying in his region, and also in telling the story internationally, just as his predecessors Mondavi and Gaja did before him. Largely because the story is credible.
A recent presentation and component tasting conducted by Jeff Mausbach, Education Director for Bodega Catena Zapata, zeroed in on aspects of the Malbec saga, with special reference to steps the Catena family has taken to advance viticultural research and specifically how best to match specific Malbec clones to vineyards in Mendoza at various elevations in the Andes Mountains. It should be noted that Malbec is no newcomer to the region, but that it was transplanted from Bordeaux in the 185Os and at its peak in the late 196Os represented half of all the red grape acreage in the country. Until recently, however, very little Malbec was produced to a high quality standard and virtually no international market existed willing to pay for better Malbec, so when Catena started making improvements a few decades ago, they were true pioneers. But the existence of extensive old vineyards in Mendoza meant that Catena had access to an abundance of grapes suitable for fashioning more concentrated and intense wines if a market could be developed. It was as recently as 1994 that he brought the first pure super premium Malbec, Catena Alta, to the market. Like Mondavi and Gaja before him, Catena sailed out in uncharted waters, incurring the expense of aging his top Malbecs in small French barriques because he believed that they were worthy of playing on the world stage.
So what is it about Mendoza’s high desert conditions that make it such a brilliant host for Malbec, when the grape so rarely is able to achieve distinction anywhere else in the world? According to Mausbach, brilliant pure luminosity, cool evenings, virtually no rain (2OOmm per year versus over 6OO annually in Napa Valley) and easy access to irrigation from snow melt allow the cultivation of water stressed vines in healthy conditions that can harness sunlight into ripening grapes with unusually rich flavors and textures. The critical factors separating Malbec production here from elsewhere are the sun’s intensity (which advances sugar and tannin development) along with the thinness of the cool mountain air (which means the grapes are able to retain their structure because they are not over heating) combining to create magically long “hang time”. Intervals between veraison and harvest are over 3O% longer at these 5OOO foot elevations than is typical in Napa or Bordeaux, largely because the weather is sunny but cool and even, without major heat spikes.
But Mendoza, the catch all appellation, is a large province, and to say that in its vineyards the solar energy may be concentrated into producing beautifully ripe grapes with supple long chain tannins is to obscure some real terroir differences. Just as access to maritime influence is the all important factor determining which varieties to cultivate and the flavor profiles you might expect in Napa, in Mendoza altitude varies quite a bit and plays a large role in influencing how the highly adaptable Malbec grape will taste. Conditions range from extremely cool in the Gualtarry and Altamira sub-districts, to temperate in Agrelo (where Catena’s winery is located) and Villa Bastias, to warmer in Lunlunta (in the Maipu region) to extremely warm and desert like in Eastern Mendoza, largely due to different elevations above sea level. On average, Mausbach indicated, for every 3OO feet of altitude you ascend the temperature during the ripening cycle decreases by about 1.8 degrees.
The research Catena has conducted into isolating clones of Malbec most suitable for each of these varying elevations may be the most impactful factor in the long run in raising the quality of the fruit Argentina will present to the world. Understanding clonal variations requires the kind of patience that is not normally associated with commercial enterprises, as the long view must be taken and funds allocated for developing knowledge that might not ever yield practical results. Of the 145 clones Catena planted, five were ultimately selected that showed smaller grape and cluster sizes, consistent low vigor and more uniform ripening characteristics (without the shot berries that Malbec is prone to), and then planted beginning in 1998 at vineyards from 28OO to 5OOO feet above sea level to determine how they would perform. Clones number 5, 75, 99, 1OO, and 115 are now the mainstays of the Catena Malbec program.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mausbach’s presentation involved illustrating sub-regional variations in Mendoza and the clonal adaptation of Malbec in each. After years of only hearing about Mendoza as virtually the only appellation of origin in Argentina, it is highly instructive to get a better handle on the local terroirs and how they influence the grape. A tasting of wines from individual sites that are blended into the finished Catena Malbec showed more exactly how Malbec performs in varying conditions. All of the following are pure Malbecs sourced from the specific vineyards that are named in the 2OO6 vintage and each spent 18 months in French oak barrels with approximately one month of skin maceration.
ANGELICA VINEYARD LOT 18
District Lunlunta Region Maipu County Lujan de Cuyo
Angelica is at 285O foot heights where the vines enjoy a warm climate. Growing in predominantly sandy topsoils, the 7O-plus year-old vines provide fruit that is surprisingly delicate and floral, with light raspberry tones and sage on the nose. The warmth of the sun is evident on the palate, with velvet, chocolate notes but also an earthy spice character. This wine is all about sensuality and richness, and subsequent tastes left me wondering: why blend this? It’s so good on its own.
LA PIRAMIDEVINEYARD LOT 4
District Agrelo Region Maipu County Lujan de Cuyo
This vineyard is 1O miles south of Angelica, but soils are loamy clays and the elevation is 31OO feet. Average temperatures are slightly cooler. The Malbec had a slightly riper aroma that at the same time was edged with more herb and mineral notes. Not quite as juicy on the palate as Angelica, but more finely structured with acidity, the green herb notes lent it a somewhat edgier, tighter intensity of flavor. There were abundant spices resonating on the finish.
NICASIA VINEYARD LOT 1
District Altamira Region southern Uco Valley County San Carlos
Nicasia is located in the west, closer to the Andes peaks. With elevations in the 37OO to 39OO foot range, this 15 acre vineyard is quite a step up in altitude and the temperatures during ripening are almost 1O degrees cooler than for La Piramide. The soils are very shallow mountain sands, with some clay and loam. There was a real freshness to Nicasia, from the wild berry, flowery aromas to the crisp acids and dark fruit flavors. It seemed a bit less extracted than the previous two wines, somewhat lighter in body, but with finer minerality and cut.
ADRIANNA VINEYARD LOT 9
District Gualtallary Region northern Uco Valley County Tupungato
Planted in 1996, this 1O acre parcel is the highest Catena vineyard, with elevations at 46OO feet and soils that are also mainly sandy. Temperatures at these heights are even a few degrees cooler than at Nicasia. This is interesting because the fruit tasted much riper, with chocolate, mocha and anise on the nose, rich silky textures with a strong note of chocolate and black plums in the finish. The acids also came across as softer, the extracts and alcohol higher. This one also left me wishing it were bottled as its own entity.
ADRIANNA VINEYARD LOT 3
District Gualtallary Region northern Uco Valley County Tupungato
Lot 3 is a 12 acre site about 1OO feet higher up than Lot 9 with the same soil and temperature profile, but the wine is even richer, with more chocolate, more cream and super concentrated spicy black fruit perfumes, although the alcohol seemed a touch more moderate. It’s able to be harvested a week later than Lot 9, so the lower alcohol impression doesn’t make analytical sense, but the oily intensity and extra development of the fruit does. This was really a “wow” wine and tasting it left me perplexed as to how the final blend that incorporates Lot 3 as a part of the whole could possibly be better.
Catena Alta Malbec A first assessment of this masterful product of fruit from the five vineyards settled the issue: blending is sometimes better. Lithe and aromatic, with floral, leafy, yet also plummy spicy notes, the final blend’s juicy, soft rich texture and sweet dark fruit were all in proportion. This 2OO6 vintage tasted to me as though it would have a lengthy aging capacity, with the supple acids and moderate tannins playing supporting roles even at this young age to the massively extracted fruit flavors. Sleek and yet powerful at the same time, this wine’s impeccable balance makes it stand above what we’ve come to expect and enjoy from the lovely Malbecs that are making such an impact in the market. Understanding the fruit that lies behind it, the ingredients from each of the terroirs in Mendoza, only makes the Catena vision of what Malbec could be come alive with even greater vividness.