Friday, October 28, 2016

Laura Catena: Aiming High With Argentina's Wine Advocate

Argentina would be hard pressed to find a better advocate for their wines than Laura Catena. She is intelligent and passionate, personable and lively. In addition, she has one foot in the past, delving into the history of wine and Malbec, and one foot in the future, researching and studying a wide variety of wine-related matters. Her passion for the wines of Argentina is infectious.

I first met Laura five years ago, at Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza, Argentina, and then saw her again at a recent, media wine tasting and luncheon at Bistro du Midi in Boston. After the passage of those five years, Laura's passion for the wines of Argentina hadn't dimmed even the slightest. If anything, it might have even grown some, possibly due to the results of the experiments and research that have been conducted during those past five years.

At the recent tasting, one of the most moving moments came during lunch, amidst more casual talk about children, colleges and video games. As a bit of background, Nicola Catena, Laura's great-grandfather, came to Argentina, from Italy, in 1898, and planted vineyards in 1902, with Malbec being one of his first vines. Nicola was a handsome man, enamored with having his picture taken, and Laura is especially fond of one of those family photos, showing Nicola with his six children. It was only recently that Laura learned something from her father, Nicolás, that has caused her to look at that family photo in a much different way.

When Nicola passed away, he left the winery to his sons but left nothing for his daughters, figuring a husband would provide for them. Those were certainly very different times, and if Laura had been born during that time, she probably never would have started working at the winery. This would have been a great loss to Bodega Catena Zapata, and the wine industry in general. She also might not have not become a physician.

This was an unsettling revelation to Laura, but also shows how far society has progressed during the last hundred years. There certainly is need for continued progress in this respect and Laura is a shining example of the benefits of such progress. Nowadays, there are numerous women involved in the wine industry, contributing significantly to its success, but more women still are needed. Women thinking about entering the wine industry can look to Laura Catena as a positive role model.

One of Nicola's sons was Domingo, born in 1910, and he eventually married Angelica Zapata in 1934. Domingo and Angelica were the parents of Nicolás Catena Zapata, Laura'a father. Angelica was the head mistress of a local school and was very much the intellectual mentor of Nicolás. When he was 18 years old, he was undecided whether he should get in the family winery business. He had an interest in physics and asked Angelica for advice on what he should do. She didn't like business and recommended he pursue physics, seeking to win a Nobel Prize. Quite a goal for such a young man.

The lesson is illustrative of the Catena legacy of aiming high. Though Nicolás ultimately didn't get into physics, ending up in the winery business, his goals always remained lofty, to make some of the best wine in the world. It wasn't enough to seek to make the best wine in Argentina. He had to make world-class wine, to be able to compete with the best from any other wine region. That legacy has clearly extended to Laura, who also is driven to produce some of the best wine in the world.

In addition, the story of Angelica and Nicolás is also illustrative of another point which Laura feels is very important, that women should mentor men and that men should mentor women. This mentoring probably helped her father be willing to place the future of the winery in Laura's hands.

When Laura was younger, she didn't have any intention of getting into the family winery. She wanted to become a doctor, eventually achieving that goal. While she was attending school, her father gave her a credit card to use to purchase wine and good glassware. She tasted many high-end wines, which were far more affordable at the time, so she acquired much wine experience and knowledge. As she spoke French fluently, her father asked her to accompany him on wine trips to France. As time passed, Laura's passion for wine grew and her decision to join the family winery might have been sealed in New York.

Laura attended the New York Wine Experience on behalf of Bodega Catena Zapata, which was the first South American winery ever to be invited to this event. She became frustrated as so many people just passed by her booth without stopping to taste the wines. She saw this as a personal challenge; how do you get people excited about the wine of Argentina? This led her to see a greater role at the winery, and Nicolás was more than happy to have her involved, letting her take over any aspect she so desired.

As her father has said to her, "You got the rebel in you."

The centerpiece of the tasting event was an examination of the Adrianna Vineyard, a South american "Grand Cru" which is claimed to be the most studied vineyard in the world. Planted in 1992-1996, the vineyard is located at an elevation of close to 5000 feet. The area is of alluvial formation, the site of a former dried river bed and consists of stripes of different soils. The above map is the first time this map has been revealed, indicating 11 different marked lots, and showing where their Adrianna wines are sourced. This is a cool climate vineyard and in some respects, the choice of this location was due to luck, though tempered by their experience.

Bodega Catena Zapata is all about research and scientific experimentation, trying to better understand terroir and the reasons why some wines are greater than others. For example, there are currently no known studies about the reasons why limestone is good for vines, so they have undergone their own study, using Malbec vines, to try to resolve this issue. There are plenty of theories, but they all lack sufficient evidence. In addition, they are conducting studies on the nature of the microbes in soil. They are even collaborating with European scientists on wine studies.

Laura mentioned that "We use science to perceive nature not to change it." All of her research is directed to this objective, not to find a way to manipulate the grapes and wine, but to find out the best way to express the grapes in the wine. It is more about understanding not seeking ways to exploit the grape. A very worthy goal.

We tasted five different wines from the Adrianna Vineyard, including two Chardonnays and three Malbecs. All five of these high-quality wines are intended to reflect the different terroirs of this vineyard, and the Malbecs have never been available in the U.S. before. These wines are indicative of the potential of Argentina, presenting wines that can compete against the best wines from around the world. These are pricey, splurge wines, which will age well in your cellar or impress your friends when you share a glass with them.

As for the two Chardonnays, they produce under 400 cases and Laura noted that they are popular in Argentina. Both Chardonnays are fermented in 2nd and 3rd use French, though even a small amount of new oak wouldn't adversely affect these wines. Laura also stated that "high end Chardonnay is for thinking."

The 2013 Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay ($125) comes from a 2.6 hectare lot, at an elevation of 4757 feet, in the Adrianna Vineyard. The lot has a shallow topsoil with calcareous deposits of marine fossils and rocks covered with calcareous. The wine is called White Bones cause it looks like there are bones in the soil. It is produced from 100% Chardonnay, with about two-thirds undergoing malolactic fermentation, and is aged in French oak for about 12-16 months.

It is an impressive wine, likely to bring to mind a beautiful Chablis. It is bright and crisp, with a delicious and complex melange of citrus, pear, apple, mineral notes, and a hint of saltiness. It is medium-bodied with a long and pleasing finish. This is a wine that aches for seafood, from oysters to scallops, an elegant wine that you should slowly sip and enjoy. This was my personal favorite of the two Chardonnays.

The 2013 Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay ($95) comes from a 2.2 hectare lot, at an elevation of 4757 feet, in the Adrianna Vineyard. The lot has no topsoil and plenty of rocks covered with calcareous. The wine is called White Stones because of all the white rocks on the surface, which make the soil a bit warmer than other lots in the vineyard. It is produced from 100% Chardonnay, with about two-thirds undergoing malolactic fermentation, and is aged in French oak for about 12-16 months.

This is also an impressive wine though it might remind you more of a Montrachet. This is a more full-bodied wine, with a pleasing creaminess and ripe apple and pear flavors as well as hints of baking spice and vanilla. There is good acidity, less minerality and the finish lingers for a very long time, satisfying our palate.

The next three wines are all cool climate Malbec, which possess more acidity and will age well. On the other hand, warmer climate Malbec tends to be more jammy. Malbec is not a high yielding grape and it is susceptible to frost, which makes growing it at higher elevations a riskier endeavor. It is also a delicate grape so you cannot do a long maceration as you would with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Laura is fascinated about the unanswered questions behind the origin of Malbec. It is known Malbec extends back at least to the Middle Ages and eventually was reborn in Argentina. However, she wants to know its complete origins and history, and has been doing some historical research seeking those answers. She believes that "wine history is the future," and I agree with the importance of history in assisting the understanding of grapes and wine.

A common question that Laura receives, and which is probably asked of many Argentina producers, is "What comes after Malbec?" In some ways, it is an insulting question, implying the assumption that Malbec isn't a worthy grape, that it is merely a stepping stone to "better" grapes. Why should that be the case? As Laura put it, "you wouldn't ask a Burgundy producer what comes after Pinot Noir." Malbec can certainly produce world class wine and as Laura says, "stand by your grape." The three Malbecs from the Adrianna Vineyard are examples of the potential of Malbec, and should be able to silence those critics who don't see Malbec as a worthy grape.

In describing these three Malbecs, Laura stated that they "taste big but are still elegant and delicate." I would agree with her characterization, feeling that these wines possess much in common with fine Bordeaux, especially those Merlot based ones which have less tannins. Each possessed its own uniqueness though their commonalities united them in certain respects too. They are all still young and probably would benefit from being set aside for a time to age more.

The first Malbec was the 2012 Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae ($136) which comes from a 5 hectare lot, at an elevation of 4482 feet, in the Adrianna Vineyard. The lot has two feet of topsoil, with 1/2 foot of limestone and rocks covered with calcareous. The wine is called Fortuna Terra which means "luck of the earth."

The second Malbec was the 2012 Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones ($160) which comes from a 1.4 hectare lot, at an elevation of 4560 feet, in the Adrianna Vineyard. The lot has one foot of topsoil and rocks covered with calcareous. The soil is similar to that in the lot for the White Stones, though this lot has poorer soil.

The last Malbec was the 2011 Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae ($350) which comes from a 1.4 hectare lot, at an elevation of 4560 feet, in the Adrianna Vineyard. The lot has two feet of topsoil, calcareous deposits of marine fossils, and rocks covered with calcareous. The name Mundus Bacillus Terrae means "elegant microbes of the earth."

In general, all three wines were complex and intriguing, elegant and muscular, the type of wines you sit and ponder. They shared flavors of black fruits and spice, with good acidity, some minerality, and lengthy finishes. My personal favorite of the three was the River Stones, as it appealed to my palate the most, though I enjoyed all three of them. 

With the holidays approaching, these are the type of wines worth the splurge. 

After the tasting of the 5 Adrianna Vineyard wines, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch, accompanied by two additional wines. The first was the 2013 Catena Alta Historic Rows Malbec ($60), an inky dark wine with plenty of complexity and a luxurious taste, a hedonistic pleasure of black fruits, ripe plum, low tannins, good acidity, and some subtle spice notes. An excellent wine which I would highly recommend. Will be a nice accompaniment to meat and game. The other wines was the 2010 Nicolas Catena Zapata ($135), a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Malbec. It was a bigger, more muscular wine, but still possessed of its own elegance.

My lunch began with the superb Lamb Carpaccio, with a cured egg yolk, castelvetrano olive, and rice crisps. The venison was silky smooth, with a rice, meaty flavor and went well with the Malbec. I easily could have devoured several dishes of this lamb.

My entree was a Flat Iron Steak Frites, with a truffle vinaigrette, and the beef was tender and flavorful, with nice crisp fries. It took went very well with the Malbec, as well as the Blend. Bistro du Midi never disappoints me when it comes to their cuisine.

Laura's story, and that of Bodega Catena Zapata, is compelling on many levels. It is an inspirational tale for all, although especially women, and the lesson of aiming high resonates for all of us. Other wine regions can also benefit from the example of this winery. Argentina is already well known with many consumers for inexpensive Malbec wines, as well as Torrontes and Bonarda. It is time that consumers also learn that Argentina can produce some amazing higher-end wines too, such as Malbec and Chardonnay. Its wines can compete with other high-end wines from all across the world.

Kudos to Laura Catena, who has the rebel in her.


Brad Smith said...

Fantastic article, Rich! I have met Laura also, and I tasted the Adrianna wines late last year. Your blog conveys both extremely well!

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks very much Samuel!