"Nicolás Catena Zapata is a figure in Argentina of the stature of Robert Mondavi in Napa and Angelo Gaja in Piedmont. He inspired an entire region to strive for a higher level of quality by his successful exploration of high-altitude vineyards and rigorous clonal selection."Larry Stone, trustee, James Beard Foundation
When Nicolás Catena Zapata began running the family winery in the mid '60s, his grandfather and father were still making wines according to the old Italian traditions. They selected grapes from their historic vineyards and aged them in large oak casks for 3 to 4 years, obtaining oxidized flavors similar to those of sherry. In the '60s the Catena Family's best wine was Saint Felicien Cabernet Sauvignon.
During his visiting economics scholar time at Berkeley, California, in the 1980s, Nicolás Catena Zapata had the opportunity to experience firsthand the Napa Valley wine revolution. A new generation of Californian producers had set out to make wines that were a quality equal or superior to that of the French. Their goal was no less than to fashion a Cabernet Sauvignon that could rival the best from Bordeaux and a Chardonnay that could rival the best from Burgundy. The Californian winemakers talked little of terroir and its relation to quality. They focused on improving vineyard management and winemaking techniques, by using hygienic stainless steel, by conducting clonal selection, and by emphasizing oak quality.
To Nicolás Catena Zapata, this was something completely new. Even more important, he was tasting wines with a surprisingly marked freshness, intense fruit and new oak hints. Right away he decided to carry out a similar project in Mendoza, Argentina. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the traditional wine-growing regions of the province and carried out a Malbec plant selection study. The first vintage grown using this vinification style, which Nicolás dubbed the Californian-French style, was the 1990, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a small percentage of Malbec. Most of the vintage was exported, but a special lot of Cabernet Sauvignon (13,000 bottles) from Catena's Agrelo vineyards was separated to be sold in Argentina.
The wine was called Catena Zapata Estiva Reservada, and it had been drawn from the winery's best barrels. This was the beginning of the history of this cuvée, which would become over the years, Argentina's most collected red wine. The change in vinification methods introduced by Nicolás Catena Zapata was “revolutionary” in the sense that most other Mendocinian wineries quickly followed these non-oxidative winemaking practices in order to retain the fresh fruit flavors. They abandoned the old Italian traditions and followed the Californian-French style (which involved temperature control to protect the fruit flavors and the use of traditional French oak barrels) introduced by Nicolás Catena Zapata.
"The arrival of Argentinean wines on the world stage was initiated by Catena's vision and the way he changed the quality of wines for export, helped by his daughter. I have a deep admiration of him as a visionary – a Mondavi in his own way."Alfred Bonnie, DiamAndes Argentina
Catena's new wines made inroads for Argentine wine among British and American wine drinkers. One day, however, Nicolás Catena Zapata was having dinner with a famous Bordeaux winemaker, Jacques Lurton, who tasted the Catena wine and said: “Excellent red wine, it reminds me of the Languedoc.” It was not what Nicolás wanted to hear. Languedoc is a warm region. The implication was clear: if his wine was to rival the great wines of France he needed his vineyards to be in cooler regions. In other words, the Catena Family needed to respect the French obsession that relates quality with terroir.
When the Catenas decided to plant vineyards in the cooler areas of Mendoza, they basically had two options: either go south, in traditional areas like Maipú or Luján, or climb up the mountain. Nicolás's father, Domingo, had always warned about the threat of frost in the southern areas, so Nicolás chose to go upwards and plant at high altitude, in the region of Tupungato, at almost 5,000 feet elevation.
Every 100 meters' increase in altitude, the temperature decreases by 1º C. Nicolás named the new vineyard “Adrianna” in honor of his youngest daughter. When they tasted the wines from this high-altitude vineyard, the Catena winemakers were really surprised. These wines were completely different from wines sourced from lower altitudes, especially the Malbecs. They had a deep, inky color, were extremely soft and velvety, had a wonderful complexity, offered a lower pH and a very intense floral and red fruit flavor.
They first attributed all these changes in aromas and flavors to the lower mountain temperatures. But an in-depth study carried out by Nicolás's daughter, Laura, and the Catena Institute of Wine showed that higher altitude wines had disproportionately higher levels of tannins (most likely developed by the vines to shield the seeds from the sun, as in a sunscreen).
And these heightened tannins gave the wines a flavor that was unique to extreme high altitude - these extreme high altitude wines had a power, texture and richness that had never been found before in Mendoza.
The Catenas never blindly applied a methodology that worked in another part of the world without experimenting with it first in Argentina to make sure that it adapted to the local climate. No other well-known wine region has vineyards as high in altitude and as low in fertility. The precise science behind this high-altitude alchemy is still something of a mystery. But judging by the results, Dr. Laura Catena firmly believes that it is this place—this terroir—that has allowed them to obtain their best wines. This was yet another “revolutionary” discovery—and one that led all wine producers in Mendoza to suddenly value high-altitude lands with access to water.
"I learned from my grandfather and father that the quality of a wine depends on the place where it was grown and there is very little we can do at the winery to improve what nature gives us."Nicolás Catena Zapata
When the Catenas decided to experiment with a new terroir at high altitude, they entered a world dominated by the long-held French theory that quality depends mostly on terroir. According to the French, the human factor—whether the winemaker or the vineyard manager—is inconsequential. Quality only depends on nature, climate, and the type of soil where the vineyard is planted. There is nothing that the winemaker can do if the quality does not come from the place where the vineyard is located: the terroir.
In trying to implement this French theory in Argentina several years ago, the Catenas made a startling discovery: The alluvial soils from Mendoza are not homogenous. In other words, in the same vineyard, within short distances, there are both physical and chemical soil differences, resulting in vineyard lots or parcelas with unique characteristics. As a result, each vineyard lot gives origin to its own unique wine with very specific flavors and aromas. This discovery prompted the family to drill down even deeper into the theory of terroir.
Dr. Laura Catena, a biologist who graduated with honors from Harvard University, decided to instill in the winery team the method of research and study, what she calls "the science of understanding nature."
With the help of Catena's Head Winemaker Alejandro Vigil, Fernando Buscema, Catena Institute of Wine Director, and Vineyard Manager Luis Reginato, Laura created the Catena Institute of Wine. Since then, the Catenas have conducted strong research aimed at getting a better understanding of the Argentine terroir, the characteristics of Mendoza, and to study every aspect of their vineyards with the ultimate goal of making Argentine wines that can stand with the best of the world. The Catena's first successful project using research as a guide was with Chardonnay.
Catena's Chardonnay “White Stones” and “White Bones” were sourced from nearby lots within the same vineyard (the Adrianna Vineyard), supervised by Vineyard Manager Luis Reginato. Laura picked the names after analyzing the physical soil composition of the two lots.
The task of discovering and studying lots has allowed the Catenas to achieve a greater quality that comes from the purity of flavors—a quality that is, in essence, better than that obtained from the group of parcels as a whole. The Catenas call this “the vineyard lot revolution.” "We have gone deep into the classic French concept that attributes wine quality 100% to terroir," says Nicolás Catena Zapata. "In the titanic task of making wines that can rival the best of the world, it is a truly revolutionary step."