Catena Zapata and its Journey to Reviving Malbec’s Majesty

02 Jul 2021
9 min read

Revered globally for its high-altitude Malbec, family-owned winery Catena Zapata has been redefining the Argentinian wine landscape for over a century. Managing Director Dr. Laura Catena tells FOUR more about Catena Zapata’s pioneering path to Malbec excellence.

It was not always Laura Catena’s plan to follow her father’s footsteps at the century-old family winery, Catena Zapata – known as Argentina’s Malbec pioneer and revered for its 100-point wines. Dedicated to helping people, winemaking didn’t quite fit into her life plan, especially after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University and attending Stanford Medical School where she specialized in Emergency Medicine. Nicknamed “la lauchita” (the little mouse) by her grandmother because she was forever on the move, Laura had envisioned a life travelling from one humanitarian crisis to another.

However, in the 1990s, Laura represented Catena at the New York Wine Experience as a favour to her father. Catena was the first South American winery to be invited to this prestigious Wine Spectator event, and it was here where Laura realised that bringing her father’s dream of “making Argentine wines that would stand with the best of the world” to life would be no easy feat, and she wanted to support him in his endeavours. Laura then joined the family business, splitting her time between medicine and wine, travelling worldwide to represent her family’s wines and her homeland of Argentina on the global stage. As a result of her active role in promoting the Mendoza wine region and Argentine Malbec, Laura is today internationally recognised as the “face” of Argentine wine.

As part of her efforts, Laura founded the Catena Institute of Wine in 1995, with the goal of using science to understand the Mendoza high-altitude wine terroir and in so doing, elevate Argentine wine. The Catena Institute collaborates with local research centres, U.C. Davis, University of Bordeaux and the University of Burgundy, and has published its research in prestigious journals such as Food Science and the American Journal of Viticulture and Enology. Even with these achievements, nothing quite makes Laura as proud as her team at the Institute though – many of them come from small farming villages and thanks to the Institute’s work-study program, they are able to complete their studies and obtain doctorates while working with the Catena team. The Catena Institute also developed Argentina’s Sustainability Code (instituted in 2010) which is now widely used by Argentina’s wine industry.

Since Laura became Managing Director of Catena Zapata in 2009, the winery has received a host of awards. Dr Catena has also been named one of the top 25 wine innovators, has been an invited speaker at Must Summit, Master of Wine Symposium, the American Society of Wine Educators, Decanter Wine Encounter, the Smithsonian Institution and the Vancouver Playhouse. She also appeared in Oprah Magazine as one of the World’s Top Women Vintners and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine Magazine, La Nación, Decanter and The Economist 1843 Magazine.

Interview with Dr Laura Catena
Can you tell us a bit about Catena Zapata and its history?

Our winemaking origins are from Le Marche in Italy. My Italian great grandfather, Nicola Catena, founded the Catena winery in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1902 with his first planting of Malbec. His son, my nonno Domingo Vicente was known as Mendoza’s master blender; his son, my father Nicolás, revolutionized Argentine wine by discovering high altitude regions in the foothills of the Andes Mountains where nobody had dared plant vines before.

When Nicolás was asked why he decided to plant Chardonnay and Malbec in Gualtallary, at an elevation of almost 5 000 feet, he said: “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.”

My job as founder of the Catena Institute of Wine and Managing Director of Catena Zapata has been to understand the intricacies of our high mountain terroir, from the cool mountain air to the intense light to the complex origin of our alluvial soils. Our family is responsible for bringing about the rebirth of the Malbec grape, an ancient French variety known for 2,000 years, famous at the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th Century and at the core of the Bordeaux blend until it was abandoned in the Old World due to its delicate nature.

In Argentina, Malbec thrives because its deep roots love our gravelly alluvial soils and never-ending sunlight. But it might have been lost into oblivion once more if it weren’t for my father making it known again throughout the world in the 1990s. For his work in elevating Argentine wine, and the Malbec variety in particular, my father received the Decanter Man of the Year Award 2009 and the Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award 2012.

As part of his acceptance speech for the Decanter Man of the Year Award, Nicolás said: “…After planting vineyards in many different areas of Mendoza, it became clear that each altitude and latitude define a unique terroir — a singular combination of temperature and sunlight intensity that produce different wines. It seems to me this is what distinguishes my region from other wine regions in the world.”

What would you say the winery’s vision/goal is?

To make Argentine wines that stand with the best of the world and to elevate Argentine wine for another 200 years.

How did you get into the winemaking industry and why are you so passionate about it?

I started my studies in Biology at Harvard University and then headed to Stanford for Medical School. I wanted to help people and I loved science. Working with my father at the family winery didn’t even cross my mind. I learned French as a child and teen and I accompanied my father on his exploratory trips to France – he was trying to understand what the best wines in the world did so that he could compete with our Argentine wines. I fell in love with wine and its history during these trips to France with my father while I was in medical school.

Later, I started going to Mendoza more often and standing in the vineyards and looking at the snow-capped Andes – I felt my country calling, literally. I knew that what my father was trying to do, to put Argentina on the world wine map was no easy task, and I wanted to help him. As my biggest supporter since I was a child, I realized that I now needed to be his supporter. If he was going to fail, I couldn’t let him fail alone. And then, as my father likes to say, we got lucky. In his search for the cold limit of vine cultivation, my father found the site for the Adrianna Vineyard, in a place where his own viticulturist said a grapevine would not ripen. And ripen it did, into our Adrianna Vineyard “Vinos de Parcela,” which hold six 100-point ratings. The vineyard has been called the Grand Cru of South America.

Catena Zapata is a family business – tell us more about how this influences its offerings?

Our vision is to elevate our region for another 200 years and in order to do this, we need to preserve our ecosystem and our farming traditions. Over a decade ago we created the Sustainability Code for Argentina and today we focus the Catena Institute of Wine’s research into understanding our terroir, our plant selections and their ecosystem so that we might be able to preserve them for the generations to come. We farm all our vineyards sustainably and most organically. Organic farming when practised in regions like Mendoza, where there is very little disease pressure due to the dry climate, leads to generally lower yields and more concentration in the wines, and more importantly, to vibrant biodiversity.

As a family winery, we can give one guarantee about taste and flavour – if my father and I don’t like a wine we won’t sell it. In 2020 Catena Zapata received the Award for #1 World’s Most Admired Wine Brand from Drinks International, and in 2021 we were #1 in South America and #2 in the World. This is a heavy responsibility towards wine drinkers around the world and towards our fellow Argentinians. Our family takes this responsibility very seriously. We will not rest until there is a bottle of Catena Zapata in every wine collector’s cellar and on every list of Best Wines in the World.

What makes a good wine in your eyes, and how do you ensure Catena Zapata upholds this?

A good wine must give pleasure, not the “drunken” kind of pleasure, but the pleasure of a beautiful piece of art, of an ancient forest, of animals running in the wild, of a fragrant and stunningly beautiful bouquet of flowers. A great wine has elegance and something that stands out, making it impossible to forget.

What makes your area ideal for the growth of your specific wine grapes and how does this give them their unique characteristics?

Our region is at a high altitude which imparts a cool climate and lots of sun – ideal for slowly ripening grapes with moderate (not too high) alcohol levels. The cool climate also gives rise to floral aromatics and minerality in some varieties, and the well-drained soils and dry climate make organic and sustainable farming second nature. Because of the cool climate, the hang time of the grapes is relatively long and tannins develop slowly and polymerize, making our wines very smooth on the palate. Rich, aromatic and smooth wines, that’s our wine language.

What are some of the winery’s core production principles?

Listen to the terroir and don’t intervene unnecessarily. Let the soil, climate and vintage speak.

Are there any unique steps or techniques you use in the process that makes the wines superior?

We allow the wild, native yeasts to ferment our grapes.

Tell us more about your wines? Tasting notes, best pairings?

My goal remains to make wines of place, that are elegant, memorable and age-worthy. Our family has spent over a hundred years finding vineyard sites that yield unforgettable wines. Now our job is to preserve these vineyards and flavours, but also to reach wine drinkers who are passionate about fine wine. Our best-known wine, Nicolás Catena Zapata, has received multiple awards and won blind tastings against other iconic wines.

Argentina’s most famous wine grape varietal, Malbec, is perhaps the best suited to Mendoza’s sunny mountain soil and climate. Malbec is one of the five Bordeaux varietals; the other varietals are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. In Argentina, Malbec can be glorious both as a single varietal and in a blend; it combines the dark, ripe, concentrated flavours and aromas of its famous French siblings Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with a richness and smoothness on the palate that has turned it into one of the fastest-growing wine imports in the world.

Our Malbec Argentino tells the history of the Malbec variety on the label through the lives of four women (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Ana Mosceta de Catena, Madame Phylloxera and Adrianna Catena). Malbec is a 2 000-year-old variety, known since Roman times and revered in Europe during the Middle Ages when it was known as the Black Wine for its dark colour. First, Malbec was famous at the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine who became queen of England. Later, in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries, Malbec was the dominant grape in the Medoc, Bordeaux (see 1875 Encyclopedia Britannica). Malbec was even more important than Cabernet Sauvignon back then in Bordeaux. After phylloxera, Malbec was not replanted in France because of its susceptibility to frost – Europe was then recovering from the Little Ice Age.  Fortunately, Malbec was brought to Argentina in the mid-19th Century, and it thrived in Mendoza, because of its sunny mountain climate.  But again, it was being mostly replanted even in Argentina, as higher-yielding varieties were favoured in the 1970s and ’80s until my father started a “Malbec Revolution” in Argentina in the early 1990s.

Malbec Argentino is made from two of our old vine Malbec vineyards in the Uco Valley, a cool climate mountain region in Mendoza, Argentina. The Adrianna Vineyard is in Gualtallary, a region at an elevation of 5 000 feet that was discovered by my father, Nicolás Catena. When he planted there in 1992 most people thought that grapes would never ripen at such a high altitude. Although it is very cool there, the sun allows the Malbec grapes to ripen beautifully. The other component in the blend comes from the Nicasia vineyard in Paraje Altamira. Altamira Malbec is known for its rich flavours and smooth velvety tannins. What is special about these mountain regions is that the soils are alluvial, well-drained and low in fertility. The vines are stressed because of these conditions and yields are naturally low. Also, because of the cool mountain climate, acidity is naturally high. The mountain sun allows for ideal ripening conditions, the low yields for concentrated flavours, and the cool climate for elegance and balance. The end result is a well-structured, elegant wine with the ability to age.

Our Adrianna Vineyard parcel wines have very particular flavours and aromatics that separate these wines and parcels from any other. Because of its world-famous 100point wines, the Adrianna Vineyard has been called the Grand Cru of South America. The Grand Cru concept refers to wines that are distinctive and could only come from one particular small place, and are age-worthy and profound. I think we have made this kind of wine in our Adrianna Vineyard: White Stones and White Bones Chardonnay, Fortuna Terrae, Mundus Bacillus Terrae and River Malbec. These wines, and our Nicolás Catena Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend, are already collected in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

My favourite food is mushrooms, grilled, in risotto or with pasta, and I like to pair them with a high-altitude aged Malbec or with a Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend like Nicolás Catena Zapata.

What would you say really sets Catena Zapata’s wines apart from others?

We have 120 years of family winemaking under our belt: the knowledge handed down from one generation to the next. And a thirst for scientific knowledge and innovation that has led us to pioneering studies in soil, climate and viticulture. This combination of our family’s passion for research and innovative spirit is what I hope will allow us to not only survive climate change but also help the world of wine find solutions for the future.

Can you tell us what interesting trends/themes are going on in the world of winemaking and how do these influence Catena Zapata?

Natural wines with no sulfite additions. We found that our native Argentine grape “criolla” which is mixed pink, red and white, yields a delicious, mineral, grippy and slightly herbal rosé which when made with no sulfites is even more delicious and textured. It’s not a style I like for every wine, but I am excited for the wines we are making without sulfites, just like the wines my great grandfather Nicola made when he first came to Argentina.

How do you hope your wines will impact people?

Here’s the progression:

I am smiling and I don’t know why. Are those goosebumps I am feeling? Or is it a vineyard breeze caressing my skin? I wonder what it would be like to smell the earth and sunlight of the Andes Mountains, to walk barefoot on the cool vineyard soil, to bite into a ripe Malbec grape and be surrounded by bees that don’t sting because they have so many native flowers to feed upon.

What’s next for Catena Zapata?

Preserving the ancient massale selections of Malbec that no longer exist in Europe and which will disappear from our centuries-old vineyards if we don’t preserve them. To help wine be a survivor of climate change and to preserve the biodiversity of our vineyard region for generations to come.

To find out more about Catena Zapata, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. View a list of the winery’s awards here.