The imposing Bodega Catena Zapata winery, modelled on an ancient truncated Mayan pyramid, is set against a stunning backdrop of vast, open skies and the awe-inspiring Andes. It is in these remarkable high-altitude surroundings in Mendoza that the Catena family has helped to bring Argentine wines critical recognition around the world.
Nicolás Catena, who in 2009 became the first person from South America to receive the prestigious Decanter Man of the Year award, always believed that Argentina could produce world-class wines. He realised, after closely studying the effects of altitude on growing conditions, that it was possible to plant vines at high elevation, and use cooler temperatures along with greater sun exposure to ripen grapes whilst preserving natural acidity.
Their highest vineyards at Gualtallary are at an impressive 1480m altitude, and were planted with the help of renowned Argentine viticulturist Pedro Marchevsky. Some thought that grapes would simply never ripen here – hail is a big issue, and the vineyards even get snow – however even cabernet sauvignon has thrived. Malbec is particularly good here: Pedro experimented tirelessly with around 100 strains of the grape to find the best examples with smaller berries, good colour and better tannins. He eventually narrowed his selection down to just seven or eight which have been replanted, so these vineyards are now used for their most premium malbec, including some of the fruit for The Society’s Exhibition Malbec.
Catena is also known for its pioneering chardonnay production, also grown exceptionally high at 1400m altitude, producing beautifully balanced fruit. Other than Gualtallary, Catena have a superb collection of other vineyards at differing altitudes over 1000m at Lunlunta, Agrelo, Tupungato, Eugenio Bustos and Altamira, where different combinations of soils and altitudes produce a range of varying grape varieties and wine styles. These superbly managed vineyards are at the heart of the company’s success.
Nicolás also introduced modern winemaking and viticultural techniques to Argentina including small French oak barrels, drip irrigation, extremely low yields and plant-by-plant selection. His significant investment in research has been a major factor in the quality of wines produced. The chief winemaker at Catena is Alejandro Vigil, a boundless enthusiast who always appears to be doing three things at once. He was previously involved in research at INTA, the state viticultural body, and his combination of impressive knowledge, relentless energy and creative experimentation has helped Catena to push the boundaries of Argentine wine production.
The Society’s Exhibition Malbec maintains its consistent finesse because Catena allows us complete freedom from vintage to vintage. Every year we are shown samples of malbec from six to eight sites, and are then able to choose the blend ourselves to ensure we capture the freshness, perfume and spirit of these excellent locations. The blend is then aged for about 14 months in oak.