One of the things that was particularly notable throughout our first trip to Argentina’s Mendoza wine region was the influence of the French. Whether directly through ownership, partnership, or through reputational excellence that wineries in Argentina wanted to emulate, wine producers from Bordeaux have recently invested heavily in the region with some terrific results such as Cheval des Andes. Bodega Catena Zapata managed to forge its own path in the local wine industry by, ironically, revitalizing a French varietal that they thought would flourish in the Mendoza region’s terroir.
The Catena family story runs parallel with the Argentinian wine story. When family patriarch Nicola emigrated from Italy to Mendoza and established the family Bodega in 1902, the wineries in the region made simple table wines. But even then, Nicola had the foresight to consider an unusual choice based on his limited experience in the region. It was Malbec, a blending grape from Bordeaux, that he chose to plant first based solely on an instinctual feeling of what he thought would grow best in the shadow of the Andes mountains.
But success would not come easily or quickly to Catena. The Bodega was passed down to Nicola’s eldest son Domingo who poured his energy and finances into continuing his father’s vision.
Domingo married Angelica Zapata and so the family winery adopted her surname as well. Under his tutelage, the family winery grew to become one of the largest in the region…until the Argentine economy collapsed in the 1960s.
Economically and politically, things remained unstable by the time Domingo passed the reigns of the family business to his son Nicolás.
It was Nicolás who earnestly pursued a primary focus on making quality fine wine after meeting Robert Mondavi in the early 1980s, just a few years following the ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine competition of 1976. It was that historical wine event that showed the rest of the world that people making wine outside of Bordeaux could in fact compete at the highest level. It was also just the kind of inspiration that Nicolás needed to continue with his quest to put Argentina on the world wine map. He quickly proved how serious he was about his objective when he made the risky move of selling off the winery’s entire production except Bodegas Esmeralda and became the first in the country to export fine wine from Argentina.
Nicolás took another big risk in 1992 when he planted grapes not just high, but really high. As in 5,000 feet above sea level high. Planting at this altitude was unheard of and he had more than a few detractors, including his own vineyard manager who felt the fruit would never fully ripen at that elevation. Once again, he proved his critics wrong. Not only did the fruit ripen, it produced complex, high quality wines.
His Argentinian colleagues took note and began to take the same approach as the French with respect to understanding their unique terroir and learning from past vintages, particularly when Mother Nature wasn’t predictable.
For example, in 1998, many of the Argentinian wineries had vastly improved their production quality when the region experienced its first El Nino. Only the French owned or influenced wineries were able to produce a good wine that vintage; all the others had irrigated too much. Today, every winery in Mendoza now understands how to prepare for a growing season where another El Nino might be forecasted.
Visiting Catena Zapata, you will be forgiven for expecting a French styled Chateau to greet you upon arrival. And you certainly will be forgiven if you are completely dumbfounded to see a Mayan Temple there instead.
Nicolás wanted to build a temple for wine and, quite predictably, the architects gave him mostly European designs. While on a trip to Guatemala, the family were enchanted by the Mayan temples and decided that would be the inspiration for the temple they would on the winery property which took 3 years (1998-2001) using local materials. Despite the Mayans never being in Argentina, the family felt a Mayan temple represented Latin America in concept and pre-Colonial signature, and it would make for a unique structure standing out amongst its winery counterparts.
As we stood surrounded by the 100ha of Catena’s La Pirámide vineyard, our host Leo explained that we were 950m above sea level (almost 3,000 feet) and the vines there average 40 years old. Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon make up most of the planting, along with small amounts of Petit Verdot, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
All of the vines at Catena Zapata are ungrafted having never suffered destruction from the dreaded Phylloxera louse that devasted Bordeaux in the 1800s. Leo shows us a traditional system of reproducing vines we had never seen before that works to preserve original vines. By taking one of the canes and planting it into the ground, it will eventually grow a new plant. “It’s the most traditional method but not used much. It takes a longer time but it’s the best way of transferring all the genetic information from one plant to the other. We keep them connected for about 6-7 years before we cut the cord and the new plant is allowed to grow independently. Original vines are very important to us because they are the daughters of the original plants brought over from France in the mid-1800s.”
As we walked along the rows of the La Pirámide vineyard, we are in the sub appellation of Agrelo, part of Lujan de Cuyo.
We are standing in a depression which Leo points out is important to know with respect to the soil. “The soil here is very compact if you compare it to the Uco Valley, but not so much if you compare it to the Maipo Valley east of Mendoza (where Catena Zapata also has vines). We have a little more clay and because of the depression, the alluvials bring in all these materials which important to know how the plants adapt their roots to these areas in order to get the water—here the roots will go no more than 2 metres underground. In our vineyard in the East, we are next to the main river with vines that are over 90 years old, and the vines need to go a little bit deeper because of the rocks there.”
It’s safe to say that when Nicola Catena emigrated to Argentina from Italy with a vision of establishing a family Bodega, it’s likely he wouldn’t have foreseen the level of success that the winery is today. His pioneering spirit certainly seems to be in the family DNA and what his son, and grandson have achieved over the years would certainly make him proud. More than a century after first planting grapes, Catena Zapata has been lauded with more than its fair share of awards and critical acclaim. As one of the few family-owned wineries left in Argentina today, the revolutionary spirit continues into its fourth generation lead by Nicolás’ daughter Laura. A visionary in her own right, she, much like her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before her, is determined to take Catena Zapata to even greater heights.
2017 Angelica Zapata Chardonnay Alta
“Alta” takes its name from the high altitude vineyards that give the wine its unique character. Medium gold in colour, it provides intense flavours of apples, mineral and other stone fruits. Medium body and a flavour profile that is deep and well defined by the mineral/acid streak that creates real backbone. Hazelnuts come through with some swirling that evoke a fine Mersault. Straddling both old and new world in style, this is just plain delicious! 14 months in 40% new oak.
2015 Angelica Zapata Malbec Alta
Very smooth with nicely polished blue/black fruit flavours. The profile is a full body with medium tannin and medium acid. Round and almost plush in texture, this wine is a crowd-pleaser. Plum and black cherry with hints of spice. The soft mouthfeel is seductive.
2017 D.V. Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino
20% whole clusters give this wine spice and added structure. Probably the most complex wine in the line up, this showed blackberry and plum on a richly textured body framed with medium tannin. Quite ripe, but even though the fruit dominated it allowed the secondary notes of earth and spice to be heard. More swirling brings out forest and mossy notes that are really quite intriguing.
2016 Nicholas Catena Zapata
This is the flagship, and shows tremendous class! 83% Cabernet Sauvignon with 17% Malbec. From high altitude vineyards this wine still has a slightly rustic tone and is likely the most age worthy in their line up. Dry and minerally, it shows hints of forest and leather and definitely brings to mind a Paulliac in style. Powerful but elegant and finessed, showing restraint and a desire to break out that will only come with a decade in a cool cellar.