Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Flying Back to Mendoza & Visiting Bodega Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata Winery in Mendoza, Argentina
(March 20 – 21, 2014) – The next day was devoted to travel, in that we left Cafayate at 9:30 and to arrive at the Salta Airport around noon.  Our 2:30 flight was delayed until 3:30 so we didn’t arrive back at the Mendoza Sheraton until around 6pm.  That evening was a quiet one of hitting the gym and having a light meal.

At 11am the next morning, a driver and car from Bodega Catena Zapata arrived to escort me to their winery in Lujan de Cuyo, about a 25 minute drive south of Mendoza.  I had visited the winery on a previous occasion as a tourist, and quickly recognized the famous Mayan pyramid architecture rising above a sea of green vineyards.

Vineyards of Catena Zapata – Largest Collection of Malbec Cuttings in the World

As we were approaching the winery, a car signaled us to stop in the middle of the vineyards, and a man walked to my side of the car.  It was Pedro, the Assistant Winemaker.  “I thought you’d like to start in the vineyard,” he said with a smile.  I nodded eagerly and jumped out of the car to walk into the magnificent rows of malbec.  Pedro then provided an excellent overview of the Catena Zapata vineyards.

They have a total of 6 vineyards with around 600 hectares of vines.  Most famous of these vineyards are:  1) Angelica – oldest vineyard planted by grandfather in 1930 near the river with many vines over 80 years old.  2) La Piramide Vineyard – next to the winery, and 3) Adriana Vineyard in the Uco valley, planted in 1992 by Nicolas (Laura’s father and current owner, now 82).  He was the first to see the potential of high altitude vineyards, planted at 4757 feet high.

Malbec Vineyards of Bodega Cantena Zapata
La Piramide Vineyard, where we were standing, is around 95 hectares and composed of mixed varietals.  It is the home of an experiment for Malbec where they brought in 140 cuttings from around Argentina and planted them here to analyze which ones produced the best Malbec. It is the largest collection of Malbec cuttings in the world. Many came from Angelica, the original vineyard that is a marsale selection of Malbec.  Pablo explained they were looking for vines that have: 1) low vigor, 2) small clusters, 3) no hen & chick, and 4) can survive the wind.

They then selected 5 top cuttings and have used those to cultivate their other vineyards.  Some of top clones are 10, 80 and 120.  These top 5 have been planted in their newer vineyards. 

The experiment illustrated how important terroir is in Argentina, with higher altitude vineyards producing more concentrated wines with black fruit and valley vineyards producing softer more approachable wines with red fruit.  Therefore, they now blend fruit from multiple vineyards to achieve desired effect in high-end wines.

Each vineyard is composed of different soil, with La Piramide having more clay mixed with sand and stone, whereas the Uco valley vineyards have limestone, rocks, and sand.  They are better for chardonnay and some malbec/cab.

They prefer VSP to Pergola, and generally plant 4250 plants per hectare with double guyot.  Spacing is 2 meters between rows and 1.5 meters between plants.  Drip irrigation is used in all vineyards except the oldest one – Angelica, which still uses flood channels.

There is some phylloxera in Argentina vineyards, but it is not a very aggressive species, and the sandy soils seem to keep it at bay.  92% of all vines in Argentina are on own roots, however, so there is some concern and they are researching the situation.  Cantena has 40% on rootstock with a mixture of SO4, Poulsen, and 1104.  Nematodes are also an occasional problem, but they have found that if the roots go deep enough, then the nematodes do not bother the vines.

Elegant Wine Tasting & Lunch at Catena Zapata

After our vineyard tour, Pedro dropped me off at the winery and I had a quick tour of the barrel room with Ramiro, Hospitality Manager, before he escorted me to a private tasting room.  Here I was greeted by Estela, Mercedes, and Pablo – members of the winemaking, marketing and export team.

Next we tasted 5 wines, followed by 3 more at lunch.  All were excellent, but the 4 that truly stood out for me were:

2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay ($35) with 80% from the Adriana Vineyard, aged 16 months in oak, wild yeast, and natural acidity.  For only $35 it was a great value, with good concentration, minerality, lemon, and pear.  It was also 14% alcohol, which contributed to its big mouthful, but with only a small amount of ML, it was still crisp enough to enjoy with food.

2009 Nicolas Catena Zapata ($120) with 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Malbec – the best fruit from 4 vineyards.  It had the powdery tannins I enjoy on an Argentinian cab but with more reserved black and red fruit and some nice herb and cassis notes.  Very elegant.  We had the 2003 and 2007 vintages at lunch, and I was amazed at how different they were – showing both terroir and the conditions of the weather that year.  The 2003 was clearly on secondary notes with leather and mushroom showing through the red mulled fruit, whereas 2007 was fresh and bold with dark cassis and tar.  All 3 were pretty amazing to taste.

2008 Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino ($120) with a tiny amount of Viognier and Cab Franc used in the ferment.  As 2008 was a difficult vintage, this malbec was more restrained with some blueberry on nose, but more earthy on palate.  Huge concentration with long finish.  A massive malbec.

2012 White Bones Chardonnay ($120) – this wine blew me away. It was so unique and so complex, I kept wanting to taste it again to see what else I could find in the glass.  It is from the high altitude Adrianna vineyard with the limestone, and the minerality clearly shows through in the class, along with lemon, straw, flint, and an intriguing bay leaf note on the finish.  I can only assume that the natural yeast that was used and the strong limestone in the vineyard provided the wine with such unique characteristics.  It was much more like a white Burgundy but with new world nuances.  It was barrel fermented with battonage and very little ML, contributing to its good concentration and crisp style.  Also natural acidity.  I was disappointed to learn they only made 60 cases.  There is a sister wine called White Stones for $99 from a different part of the vineyard.

Lunch was a beautiful affair of four courses in a private dining room with a large wooden table and the vineyards clearly visible out the tall windows.  The first course was a quinoa salad with goat cheese truffle.  It paired beautifully with the chardonnay.  The Second course was goat cheese brie with red beets and chickpeas paired with the 2003 Nicolas.  Third course was a grilled beef tenderloin with potatoes and wild mushrooms.  It was a perfect match with the 2007 Nicolas, and dessert was Dulce de leche with espresso.


I was completely unprepared for the exceptional hospitality displayed.  Everyone was very kind and knowledgeable. The whole visit was organized so flawlessly, and I enjoyed myself so much, that I lost track of time.  It was only when my car and driver came for me and I arrived back at the hotel around 5pm, that I realized I didn’t have much time to prepare for the evening BBQ and party that Alejandro was planning.

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