Discovery Tasting: Catena

Stones, Bones and Desert Sunshine

The darkness of a north-European winter makes most of us dream of sunshine. So this week’s Sommelier Collective Discovery tasting of Catena’s wines from its showcase Adrianna vineyard was a delight on every level.

It was a chance not just to taste some seriously ambitious wines explained to us by the people in charge of growing and making them, but to actually see some of Catena’s vineyards and iconic Piramide winery.

And if the Collective’s members were a little jealous of the clear blue spring sky and birdsong behind head viticulturalist Belen Iacono’s shoulder they managed not to show it.

In truth, Belen was not in the actual vineyard that gave birth to the wines we were trying. The Adrianna vineyard has many things in its favour – multiple soil types, a high altitude and a cool climate being three of them – but good wi-fi is beyond it.

This perhaps isn’t surprising. As recently as 1990, when Dr Nicolas Catena began planting there, it didn’t even have a road.

Recognised as one of the pioneers of modern Argentinian winemaking, Dr Catena went (literally) off the beaten track in search of a cooler climate.

Locals used to call Nicolas Catena ‘El Loco’ – the crazy man – because they didn’t think he’d be able to get grapes to ripen there.

According to Belen, Adrianna goes from Level 2 (think Bordeaux/Piedmont) to Level 1 (Niagara/Burgundy) on the Winkler scale.

Temperatures are moderate for Argentina – rarely over 34 degrees Celsius, which means the vines don’t shut down – and with the kind of diurnal shift you would expect from 1500m of altitude. Night-time temperatures drop to around 15 degrees, giving the vines plenty of time to recover their poise for another day basking in the endless sunshine.

The Adrianna vineyard is in Gualtallary, a part of the Valle de Uco, and soon to have its own officially designated appellation.

Gualtallary is essentially an ‘alluvial cone’ – the site of multiple rivers rushing from the Andes towards the sea. It makes for very mixed soils. Our tasters were trying wines from three different terroirs – often just a few metres apart.

Belen Iacono with tame chunk of limestone

The Whites

The White Bones Chardonnay came from soil with 40cm of loamy/sandy topsoil, then a big solid strip of limestone ‘like white concrete’ as winemaker Ernesto Bajda put it. Belen kindly held up a chunk of limestone larger than her head to prove the point. Because it holds water, the White Bones vines naturally produce more fruit and take longer to ripen

By contrast, the White Stones came from soils full of round rocks that have rolled down from the river. There is still a limestone influence to the soil, but it’s very poor and drains easily. Because of this, the plants are fighting for all the nutrients (and water) they can get. Crops are naturally small and, as a result, the fruit ripens earlier and more easily.

‘Stones is our Corton, and Bones is our Chablis,’ said Ernesto.

Collective members Jan Van Heesvelde (L’Enclume), Klearhos Kanellakis (Trivet) and Paul Robineau (110 de Taillevent) all found ‘herbal’ or ‘Mediterranean’ notes in the White Bones, while the latter spoke for many when he said the White Stones showed ‘more citrus notes’.

Winemaking-wise, it’s very much a hands-off approach. Both are barrel-fermented, but the casks are two, three and four years old; the oak influence is dialled back.

The biggest aim in these wines is to show the parcel. Chardonnay is just the messenger

Ernesto Bajda
Ernesto Bajda, winemaker

‘The point is to show the uniqueness of the two parcels, which are just 50m apart – and the effect of what I call a cool climate high altitude desert.

‘As a winemaker, my only goal is to preserve that potential and translate it as purely as possible.’

He’s doing a pretty good job. When our tasters were asked to pick a favourite, the two wines were split 50/50 with the same number of votes.

The Reds

For the reds our tasters were presented with three Malbecs. But anyone thinking they knew what Argentine Malbec tasted like was in for a surprise.

‘It’s so great to see three Malbecs that couldn’t be more different from each other,’ commented Collective member Rui Paulo Pereira from the Royal Cavalry and Guards Club. ‘I loved the restrained finesse of the wine.’

Again, these were from different soil types.

The River Stones Malbec came from a similar soil to the White Stones Chardonnay: round river stones and poor, well-drained soil, but a relatively warm, north-facing vineyard.

The neighbouring Fortuna Terrae Malbec was also from north-facing vines, but here they were planted in a former creek that’s been filled in by wind-blown soil. Described as an ‘oasis in the desert’, the plants here are always greener and ‘happier’ according to Belen. Clusters are bigger and the fruit less quintessentially concentrated.

We find lots of violet – an important descriptor for high-altitude Malbec.

Ernesto Bajda

The final Malbec was the Mundus Bacillus Terrae (so named because of some helpful microbes in the soil). It came from the same soil type as the White Bones Chrdonnay : 40cm of topsoil, then big chunks of limestone.

‘We do play a bit with the winemaking here,’ admitted Ernesto. Mid-way through fermentation, the team press off some of the wine and allow it to finish fermenting off skins in concrete, as though it were a white.

‘It’s an amazingly beautiful Malbec,’ said Ernesto. ‘Don’t expect a big new-world strong wine full of body and oak. It’s more similar to Pinot from limestone soils in the old world. This wine burns the books, and we don’t mind.’

Neither did our tasters. The wine was the star of a tasting full of surprises.

‘Blind taste these wines and you’d hardly describe them as Malbec,’ said Ernesto. ‘The variety is in our DNA, but here it is just a messenger…’

TASTING NOTES FROM COLLECTIVE MEMBER JAMES CAMERON

For the whites, it was remarkable to see how two wines treated very similarly in the winery and from parcels just 50m apart in this cool climate, high altitude desert could be so wildly different!

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay 2018

Harvested 2-3 weeks before the ‘Bones’ this shows a wonderful freshness and vibrancy with lots of lemon and lime citrus notes. The oak used is very subtle but adds to the complexity. There are hints of tropical fruit, particularly pineapple, and a pronounced chalky minerality; a touch of salinity brought together by a racy acidity.

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay 2018

This shows wonderful complexity, starting with flavours and aromas of lemon cheesecake and lemon curd and a wonderful herbaceous quality reminiscent of Herbes de Provence. Like with the Stones it maintains a zippy acidity and an almost wet gravel minerality. An absolute masterpiece of high-altitude white wine making.

The three Malbecs were a world away from most Malbecs I have tasted. I didn’t realise the variety had the potential to be this elegant!

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec 2017

This entry to the Adrianna range showed lots of deep black fruit like black plum and blackberry. The oak was beautifully integrated with flavours of chocolate, tobacco and a little sweet vanilla. There was a delicate violet florality and a slightly green finish.

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones Malbec 2017

Similar in style to the Fortuna Terra, but not as bright and fruit forward. It began with flavours of cherry compote, blueberry and blackberry, the subtle oak offering aromas of chocolate and leather.

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae Malbec 2017

Wow! This wine’s reputation precedes it – and rightly so. With flavours of cassis, chocolate, coconut and tobacco, a fantastic minerality and delicate lavender and violet florality, this is a Malbec like no other. On the one hand, complex and powerful, on the other restrained, finessed and elegant. By far and away the finest Malbec I have ever tasted. Would love to see how it ages.

Star wine: Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

UK importer: Bibendum – contact your account manager