Calgary Wine Life: Catena Virtual Tasting with Laura Catena

26 08 2017

Laura Catena is my wine hero.  Her list of credentials reads as if it must have been accomplished by at least two people over the course of long, full lives:  fourth-generation winery owner, global Argentinian wine ambassador, Harvard magna cum laude, Stanford medical school grad, San Francisco emergency room and pediatric emergency doctor, multilingual published author, viticultural researcher and innovator.  And these parallel tracks of success are not a story of a mid-life career switch; she has been excelling in one of the most challenging careers in medicine and continuing her family’s proud wine legacy simultaneously, on two different continents, since she was in her early 20s.  As I have a hard time juggling more normal professional work demands and writing a weekly wine blog in the same city, I hold Dr. Catena in some degree of awe, as an example of what purpose and passion truly can accomplish in a single lifespan.

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Argentina has long been highly ranked on global lists of national wine consumption, made up as it is of a high percentage of European immigrants and their descendants, who brought with them an imbued wine culture and the know-how to introduce vines and winemaking practices to their new home.  One such voyager was Nicola Catena, Laura’s great-grandfather, who came to Argentina from Italy in 1902, at age 18, and planted his first vineyard, which became the origin of Bodega Catena Zapata.  However, it was Laura’s father Nicolas, two generations later, who brought the winery to the world’s attention and ended up bringing the whole country along with him.

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Nicolas travelled to California in the 1980s, shortly after the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, where Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay were first thrust into the global spotlight after besting top Bordeaux and Burgundies in a surprising blind tasting that went viral.  He met up with Robert Mondavi, perhaps the man most insatiably driven to keep California’s star burning ever more brightly, and was inspired by the quality and ambition in this burgeoning rogue wine nation.  Convinced that Argentina could follow the same path to prominence and be the equal of California (not to mention France) in quality, Nicolas Catena returned home, sold the domestic-consumption table wine portion of the family winery, and zeroed in his focus on quality wines for export, aiming to “put Argentina on the map as a grand cru” for world wine.  He spent years studying climate patterns and geology and gradually came to realize that the most popular vineyard areas in Argentina at the time were mostly too warm for quality wine production.  He had two choices for cooler planting zones:  south, away from the Equator, or up, into the Andes.  He went up, and Argentina’s wine fates rose with him.

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High-altitude Argentinian mountain Malbec has become almost self-evident now, but it was the precise opposite when Nicolas Catena first began planting vines on the rocky foothills many thousands of feet above sea level.  He planted the Adrianna Vineyard in Mendoza’s Uco Valley in 1992, at 4,725 feet elevation, over the objections of his viticulturist and with a fairly heavy focus on Chardonnay, since the prevailing wisdom was that this barren and chilly plot of land would at best allow for some passable sparkling wine.  25 years later, it has clearly become Argentina’s grand cru, maybe the best and most singular quality vineyard in the whole country.  It represents Catena’s vision and audacity to a tee, the true soul of Argentina that is now being shared with the world.FullSizeRender-709Shortly after the Adrianna Vineyard was planted, and with no plans as of yet to be a part of the family business, Laura Catena was in her medical residency when she was asked by her father to represent Argentina and Bodega Catena Zapata at Wine Spectator’s annual New York Wine Experience, where premium wineries from around the world gathered to pour their wares for eager patrons.  After a night of watching those patrons walk past the “Argentina” sign and wait in line for the wines of France and Spain and Italy, Catena decided on the spot that she was going to help her father raise the world’s awareness of her nation’s wines.  Nicolas had the vision to see what Argentina could produce and the drive to make the necessary transition to quality happen, but he needed help communicating that vision and that transformation to a skeptical audience; Laura has performed that task admirably, and the world’s attention has now never been more focused on Argentina and its signature grape, Malbec.

 

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The story of the Catenas is so intertwined with the story of Argentina’s rise that it’s impossible to read about the latter without coming across the former.  I have been highly interested in both, and particularly in Laura Catena’s remarkable life journey, so it was an incredible treat to have the opportunity to attend an interactive virtual tasting of five different Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard wines led (via video conference) by Laura herself.  If you think you know the outer limits of what Argentinian wine can be, prepare to redraw your boundaries.

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2013 Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay (approx. $130 CAD)

The Adrianna Vineyard is a study in soil mapping and parcel specification.  The vineyard is divided into 11 different Lots, which in turn are subdivided into numerous smaller micro-parcels based on differences in soil composition.  A small apricot grove is planted near the centre of the vineyard; as Catena explained, she has found on three separate occasions that if apricots grow well in an area, Malbec tends to grow well too.  Apricots grow remarkably well in Adrianna Vineyard.

We tasted the two premium single-parcel Chardonnays coming out of the vineyard, the present-day reward for the mistaken past hope of half-decent sparkling wine out of Adrianna.  The White Bones and White Stones Chardonnays come from different sides of the same vineyard Lot (Lot 1), but despite their proximity and near-identical winemaking treatment, they emerge from the bottle entirely different creatures, in large part due to soil differences.  The Adrianna Vineyard lies across an old river bed that has strewn an immense variety of soils around a fairly focused area, a viticulturist’s dream come true.  White Bones is grown in a shallow layer of alluvial topsoil over limestone and marine fossil deposits (hence the name) and reflects that upbringing in the glass.

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Pale lemon in colour, the White Bones comes across chiseled and powdery from the outset, beaming out focused aromas of chalk, talcum powder, lime and lemon meringue. It practically vibrates with energy as it sits on the tongue, lean and taut despite barrel fermentation and modest neutral oak aging.  Crisp pear, cinnamon and exotic spice are cut with smoke, slate, quartz, dust and unstoppable driving acid, propelling the wine into a supremely extended finish.  Still just scratching the surface of itself, this is a tightly wound mineral powerhouse.  What a beast.

94-95+ points

2013 Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay (approx. $110 CAD)

A few steps away from White Bones’ topsoil-and-limestone combo grows the vines of White Stones Chardonnay, which sit in…none of the above.  The “soil” of White Stones consists of — you guessed it — nothing but large oval white river stones, with no overlay of dirt to speak of.  27 rows of Chardonnay vines collectively form this soil-specific sub-parcel, creating a wine that has lived the exact same life as the White Bones but for its roots lying a few feet to the southwest, but that carves a completely new identity as a result of this seemingly insignificant shift.

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The largest irony about the White Stones is that it is far less rocky and geological in its flavour profile than its neighbour and sibling.  It is deeper and more piercing in colour, fuller and more languid in texture, and friendlier and more inviting in flavour, combining salty grilled lemon, fuzzy peach, golden apple, rubber balls and angel food cake on a much broader frame.  Calmer acidity (despite an Okanagan-esque pH of 3.03) leads to less tension and more breadth, making the wine seem to stretch endlessly, retaining interest throughout thanks to marvellous textural depth.  Our room was split as to which of the two Chardonnays was preferred, and both were eye-opening and spectacular, but I’m a sucker for acid and precision so have to give the slight nod to the Bones.

92-93 points

2013 Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec (approx. $125 CAD)

Next we turned to a trio of super-premium Malbecs, the first two of which grow side-by-side in Adrianna’s Lot 6, at 4,482 feet of elevation (did I mention this vineyard features a 300-FOOT elevation change?).  As with the Chardonnays, the Malbecs all receive very similar treatment in the cellar, with their differences left to be determined by the uniqueness of their soils.  The Fortuna Terrae, meaning “luck of the land” in Latin, was grown in the thickest layer of topsoil in the vineyard, but with limestone-laced rocks immediately below.

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The aromas of these three Malbecs started filling up the room as they were being poured, before we even sat down.  The first thing instantly noticeable about this particular wine was its luridly purple colour, eye-catching but not fully opaque, very Malbec.  After one sniff of the Fortuna Terrae I wrote “blueberry pie forever”, which basically sums it up, although this aromatic standard-bearer was ultimately joined by grape, saskatoon berry, vanilla bean and baking spices.  Lush but not overblown on the palate, the wine is constantly kept on its toes by sneaky acid and impressively balanced tannin; the flavours are all primary and floral now but will ease into more in the decades of life this has ahead of it.  This is basically the pinnacle expression of the casual wine drinker’s known and trusted style of Malbec.  If you have bought and loved the sub-$20 entry-level Catena Malbec, this will elevate and outshine that while still retaining enough of that familiar identity to be recognizable as the head of that particular family.  The other two Malbecs below go to places unknown.

91-92+ points

2013 Adrianna Vineyard River Stones Malbec (approx. $150 CAD)

If you made an instinctive connection between the White Stones Chardonnay above and this River Stones Malbec, you are ahead of your time:  while White Stones comes from the other side of Adrianna than River Stones, the two wines share an extremely similar soil composition dominated by large river rocks, with the River Stones portion of Lot 6 distinguished only by a slight dusting of topsoil.  River Stones’ parcel runs parallel to Fortuna Terrae’s, the parcels divided by the swelling of stones in the former, following the contours of the ancient river.  The two wines could not be more different.

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The River Stones is paler and more ruby in colour and leans to redder fruits aromatically, cherry and raspberry, tinged with hot rocks and something animal and gamey that envelops the fruit, lending it depth and a sort of wild presence.  It is less pretty on the palate than the Fortuna, but more powerful, more savoury, its tannins far grippier and its texture rougher around the edges.  The white rocks of the River Stones created a wine that was immediately reminiscent to me of the wines hailing from the similarly large oval rocks of Washington State’s famed Rocks district, whose hallmark is equally brawn, funk and game.  It seems equally a bit of a nod to Malbec’s history in Cahors, offering a brief flicker of the Black Wine of yore while still retaining the essence of Argentina.

92-93 points

2013 Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae Malbec (approx. $350 CAD)

The prior expressions of the Adrianna Vineyard above are all special; this one is beyond that, closer to ideal, a Platonic form of what Malbec can be.  It comes from a 1.4 hectare parcel near the centre of the vineyard (Lot 3) that yields such consistently excellent grapes that it led Catena to say at our tasting:  “We don’t know why; it’s just so perfect.”  One potential reason is that this vineyard zone is teeming with beneficial microbial bacteria on the vines’ roots, which Catena has studied extensively and which may assist with nutrient uptake in these poor stony soils.  This explains the wine’s unusual name:  “Mundus Bacillus Terrae” roughly translates to “elegant microbes of the earth”.  The lone differentiator in winemaking for the Mundus is that this flagship bottle is co-fermented with a small percentage of Viognier for aromatic and textural impact.

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This final wine, this final statement from Adrianna, trends back towards a purple hue and offers up a high-toned and abjectly glorious nose, a swirling mixture of violets, blackberry, anise, currant, incense, jasmine, hickory, and ever more and more.  Everything?  It smells like…everything?  Even on a cautious sip, the Mundus attacks in waves, majestic and regal despite clearly still being just a baby.  It is a towering presence but remains deft and balanced throughout, its blacker fruit lifted by cardamom and grounded by rocks, matchsticks and topsoil, its acid and tannin dialled in from the first second the wine hits the tongue.  Lifted, expansive, complex, harmonious:  this is the single best expression of Malbec I have ever had the privilege to try.  It must taste like Nicolas Catena’s vision realized.

95-96+ points

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Hi Argentina!

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