In the late 1800s, Nicola Catena grew up the son of vineyard workers in The Marches province of Italy. Like many Italians who struggled to make ends meet at the turn of the 19th century, he boarded a ship to cross the ocean in search of a more prosperous life. Argentina was a common destination for wayward Italians and Nicola found his home in Mendoza, which was widely becoming known as a magnificent grape growing region. In 1902, he planted his first vineyard and began producing wine for the domestic market.
Nicola’s eldest son Domingo eventually took over the business and strived to expand the production of his favorite grape, Malbec. Years later, Domingo’s eldest son Nicolás (named after his grandfather) graduated from the university with a degree in economics and joined the family business in 1963. Together, they worked diligently to increase Catena’s vineyards and winemaking capacity in order to become one of Argentina's largest and most prosperous wine producing families.
Catena was one of the leading producers of Argentinean wine in terms of quantity, but it wasn’t until one day in 1982 that they began their quest to become a leader in quality wine as well. While featured as a guest lecturer for the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of California Berkley, Nicolás took frequent weekend trips to Napa Valley to see what the California producers were up to.
Nicolás took the public tour at the Robert Mondavi Winery, and it suddenly became clear to him what his new direction for Catena would be. He reflected, “When I saw the Mondavi operation, their investment in research and could appreciate what they were achieving in terms of quality, I felt truly inspired. I thought, ‘My God, why not try this in Mendoza?’ I always think of that visit as the magic moment that changed my whole concept of winemaking.”
When Nicolás returned he immediately sold the table wine portion of Catena and kept only Bodegas Esmeralda, the premium winemaking branch of the family business. He organized research groups to study the various microclimates of Mendoza to determine the best locations for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and the family grape of choice, Malbec. He began researching vines to determine which clones were best suited for the Mendoza countryside, and after they were planted Nicolás taught his employees to stress the vines in order to produce low yields. “The concept that less was actually more was very revolutionary for the Argentine wine industry,” stated Nicolás.
When the microclimate research results came back, the reports pointed up – up towards the mountains, that is. Catena invested heavily in high altitude vineyards closer to the base of the Andes Mountains. The new vineyards ranged from 3,100 feet at Uxmal Vineyard to 3,870 feet at Altamira Vineyard to 5,000 feet at Adrianna Vineyard (named after Nicolás’ daughter). The alluvial deposits (clay, silt and gravel) making up Mendoza’s barren desert have proven to be the ideal location for planting vines; the barren soil provides excellent drainage and optimum conditions for producing low yields of highly concentrated fruit. Meanwhile, Catena’s irrigation system allows complete control over the amount of water the vines receive, one extra step in quality assurance.
When Domingo passed away in 1985, Nicolás vowed to fulfill his father's vision to place Argentine Malbec among the world's most coveted red wines. He began selecting specific clones and matching them to the microclimates of his new vineyards. The status of Catena's Malbec has steadily risen over the last decade, and today is readily mentioned in many wine circles. Nicolás' daughter Laura has recently joined Catena and promises to continue to fulfill her father's vow.
Now, let’s take a look at Catena's wines. Catena produces wines under four labels: Nicolás Catena Zapata is the premium wine produced only in outstanding vintages and is designed to compete against the likes of Caymus and Opus One. Catena Alta is their upper-tier wine produced from select vineyard lots. Catena is the family’s primary wine. Finally, Alamos is sourced from the same vineyards as other Catena wines, but goes through different fermentation methods to produce entry-level wines that are easy to drink.
The Alamos Chardonnay is very approachable and less oaky than many of its New World counterparts. It displays banana and vanilla custard with a zippy finish and receives rave reviews from all who try it. The Catena Chardonnay shows hints of French oak that make it a more sophisticated wine, with baked apple and pear notes that lead into an extensive finish.
Pure and simple, the Catena Cabernet Sauvignon is exactly what you’d expect from a Mendoza Cab – Ripe black currant and cassis with a touch earth. Meanwhile, the surprise of the bunch is the Alamos Merlot, which shows black cherry, blueberry and chocolate, with just enough nuance to make even Miles from Sideways return for a second sip.
We’ve been fortunate enough to taste the last three vintages of Alamos Malbec, and this may be one of the most underrated $10 wines on the market. While each displays different flavor profiles, their quality remains consistent from year to year. The 2002 Alamos Malbec shows boysenberry and cherry with hints of toast and pepper. The 2003 Alamos Malbec is mochalicious, while the Alamos 2004 Malbec is cinnamony with bright blackberry and cassis. But the most eye-popping wine was the Catena Malbec, which provides one of the most opulent displays of berries you can find.
But the exciting times are only just beginning for Catena. The vines are just beginning to reach the age where the roots are pushing into the subsoil. Why is that important? Because the deeper the roots travel, the more terroir-driven characteristics they will impart on the wine. Each Catena wine is showing rich fruits now, and adding touches of earth and minerals will only add to the complexity of these already great wines.