Catena Alta Historic Rows Malbec 2011, Bodega Catena Zapata, Mendoza, Argentina

Drunk July 2015, Churrascaria Vento Haragano, Sao Paolo, Brazil

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The winery

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Nicola Catena, cam to Argentina from Italy to Argentina in 1898, and he planted his first Malbec vineyard in 1902. Domingo, his son, inherited the property and took the family winery to the next level, becoming one of the largest vineyard holders in Mendoza. 

By the 1960's, however, Familia Catena was struggling. The Argentine economy was in trouble and inflation rates was soaring. One year, Domingo realized that it would cost him more to harvest than to leave the fruit on the vines. He asked his twenty-two year old son Nicolás, a recent PhD graduate in economics, what to do about such a dilemma. Nicolás advised him not to harvest. Domingo could not follow his son’s advice with a clear conscience and picked anyway. 

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Taking the reigns of the family vineyards and wineries in the mid 1960s, he concentrated on expanding distribution throughout Argentina during years of turmoil in the 1970s. But in the early 1980s, Nicolás left Argentina to become a visiting professor of economics at the University of California. The state and especially Napa Valley were an inspiration to Nicolás and his wife Elena, who spent weekends visiting the area.

Nicolás Catena returned to Mendoza with a vision in mind. From one day to the other, he sold his table wine producing company, keeping only Bodegas Esmeralda, the fine wine branch of the family business. At that time Argentina was perceived as a bulk wine producer and Nicolás was told by many of his colleagues in Argentina that he was “completamente loco” (completely crazy).

But Nicolás Catena is not someone to be easily discouraged. During the 1980s, he set out to discover the best places to plant vineyards in Mendoza. When recently asked why he decided to plant Chardonnay and Malbec in Gualtallary, at almost 5,000 feet elevation, Nicolás answered, “I felt that the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation, by taking risks”. His own vineyard manager had told him that Malbec would never ripen there, but it did, and very well. Nicolás found that Mendoza was exceptional for vine growing, with each high altitude valley providing a unique flavour and aroma profile of the same varietal. He found that the poor soils near the Andes, discarded by the original European immigrants due to their low fertility, were actually ideal for quality viticulture. And that the desert climate was an asset because it allowed him to control quality and hang time through strict irrigation control. 

Then came the challenge of what to do with Malbec. Nicolás did not have his father’s confidence in Malbec. Domingo Catena fiercely believed that Argentine Malbec could make a wine as worthy as any first growth Bordeaux. Nicolás was not sure that Malbec would be able to age. In 1989, after his father Domingo died, Nicolás put all his sorrow into trying to see if his father’s intuition was right. It took 5 years of working on the 60 year old Angélica vineyard before Nicolás was satisfied enough to make a Catena Malbec in 1994. Then came the question of which clones to plant in the new vineyards. Since there was no existing Argentine Malbec clonal selection, Nicolás decided to bring clones from Cahors, France. The French Chardonnay clones had given him his best white. But results for French Malbec clones were disappointing. They grew large berries and bunches with rustic aromas and flavors. 

Nicolás set out to develop his own selection of Argentine Malbec clones planting 145 clones in the La Pirámide vineyard. Of these, he selected the best five and began to plant them in different terroirs and altitudes. By 1994, Nicolás and his team felt that they had identified their best vineyard lots for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. First with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1994, Nicolás bottled a small cuvée from the oldest and most uniform lots in the La Pirámide vineyard. Three hundred cases of Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon were made. In 1995, Nicolás bottled his first Chardonnay from cool climate Tupungato region, sourcing the fruit from Lot 4 of the Domingo vineyard for the Catena Alta Chardonnay. The next year, in 1996, two acres of lot 18 of the Angélica vineyard produced the best Malbec, and Nicolás made his first Catena Alta Malbec.

1997 was a phenomenal Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, and Nicolás Catena started plans to make another top cuvée, a wine that would fulfill those dreams that had started in the early 1980s. The wine, named Nicolás Catena Zapata (Zapata is Nicolás' mother's maiden name), was a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec .It was released in 2001 through a series of blind tastings held in the USA and Europe where it was compared blind to Château Latour, Haut Brion, Solaia, Caymus and Opus One. The Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997 came in either first or second in every tasting.

In 2001 Nicolas' daughter Laura took over the Research & Development program at Bodega Catena Zapata. She immediately set about working with the high altitude Malbec that her father had planted. Laura was sure that this Argentine varietal, planted in these extreme microclimates, would yield somehting truly special. Laura's determination to produce a world class Malbec led her and the viticultural team to conduct an actual plant by plant selection of the top Malbec lots in their high altitude vineyards. These Zapata plants were managed and harvested separately to isolate their incredible potential.

In 2004 this program produced such extraordinary fruit that the winemakeing team decided to ferment the fruit directly in new oak barrels. The result were three spectacular new Malbecs which showed the incredible quality of the family's high altitude Malbec vineyards:

In 1994, Nicolás Catena made the first premium varietal Malbec to be exported world-wide from Argentina. It took fifteen years of vineyard research and three years of experimentation at the winery before Nicolas and daughter Laura could decide to bottle the first Catena Malbec. Over the next two years, they identified their best vineyard rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Malbec and made the first vintages of the Catena Alta wines in very small quantities. Catena Alta continues to be a limited production of single varietal wines made from a selected few rows in the Catena family's vineyards. 

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The wine

Catena Alta Malbec is sourced from Lot 18 of the Angélica vineyard, located in Lunlunta (3018 ft elevation), Lot 4 from the La Pirámide vineyard, located in Agrelo (3117 ft elevation), Lot 2 from the La Consulta vineyard, located in La Consulta (3593 ft elevation), and Lots 3 & 9 from the Adrianna vineyard, located in Gualtallary (4757 ft elevations).

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2011 Vintage report:

After a small but very good quality harvest in 2010 (there was low set related to cold spring temperatures and Zonda winds) the 2010 winter was quite dry and cold. On November 9th, a fierce frost hit Mendoza, cold air travelling fast along the low valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. The lack of humidity made things even worse: frost-cans were lit all night and the La Piramide vineyard in Agrelo (Agrelo and nearby Ugarteche were the worse affected) had been mostly spared. The Angelica Sur Vineyard, a newer vineyard in El Cepillo, in the Southernmost part of the Uco Valley, was not as lucky – out of 150 Hectares only 30 were harvested.

The winter of 2010 was very dry, with little snowfall from the Andes. The scarcity of snowmelt resulted in little available water for irrigation. Some vineyards had drought problems during the Spring and the beginning of Summer. In February rains further delayed the harvest, especially the harvest of white grapes. However, March and April saw practically no rain.

In February, the water situation became critical since harvest was approaching and towards the end of the month the rains arrived and the mountains became so white from the snow that it looked like winter. The initial elation at the arrival of water turned into fear towards beginning of March.  Pockets of botrytis in the whites began to be seen but then the weather calmed down, the rain virtually stopped and then there were  2 more months of cooler-than-usual temperatures with a perfect mix of scattered clouds and sunny skies.

These colder temperatures delayed the maturation cycle. In fact, ripeness was achieved 15 days later than last year, which was already a late year. So overall, there was a 3 week delay in harvest compared to the usual harvest dates.

Scarce precipitation meant little hail. In fact, there were only two hailstorms, which were not very strong and only affected a small area.

The later ripening reds, such as Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were harvested 2-3 weeks later than usual in perfect condition with good concentration and perhaps due to the cooler climate, heightened aromas. Natural acidity was optimal, even in some of the lower altitude areas. In conclusion, the grapes have ripened with a higher level of acidity than usual, providing fresh, balanced wines. Sugar concentration was also obtained later than usual, but without causing any serious problems. Aromatics are notably high and the concentration of polyphenols is excellent due to photosynthetic efficiency.

Catena Alta is an assemblage of historic rows within the Catena family Estate vineyards and vineyard lots are harvested at different times to ensure optimal natural acidity and moderate alcohol levels. Whole berries are hand loaded into small format fermentation bins and 225-500 L barrels; lots from each vineyard are treated individually; fermentation and maceration last for 10 – 35 days; 30% cold maceration.  Wild yeasts. Alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in barrel; wine undergoes active battonage to protect it and drastically reduce the amount of SO2 needed. Aged for 18 months in French oak.

This wine has been on my bucket list for some time as the winery has the reputation of being one of the best in Argentina and on a recent trip to Sao Paolo I was lucky enough to try it with some great meat at the renowned Churrascaria Vento Haragano (which I would heartily recommend for anyone passing thorough the city if you are BBQ lover). 

So what about the wine?

The nose was very appealing with Mocha aromas and really powerful, blackberry, black cherry and plum flavours on the palate. Great balance of fruit and acidity with a lovely smoothness which finishes with an enduring spicy, fruit finish which was perfect with plenty of red meat.