February: After a long, cool winter this is the last month of dormancy for the vines; sap is just starting to stir and circulate in the plant and vine growers across Spain will be finishing their winter pruning and selecting the buds they wish to produce fruit for 2017. The soil should be freshly ploughed, allowing aeration and deeper penetration for rainfall. Growers will be adding fertilisers and organic matter that will gradually break down, adding nutrients for the plants rapid growth in Spring. This is also the last time of the year to finish repairs on trellising systems and to make any major changes for the coming growing season; once it starts, it goes very quickly indeed!
Hello Wine Lovers! 2018 is well underway and last month we celebrated with two fully booked tastings, including an international blind tasting and an exploration of the wines of Portugal. This month we’ll be kicking off with another blind tasting, again with wines from all over the world. Then on the 22nd we’ll be looking at arguably the most well known red grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, and comparing examples from wine regions across the world. I don’t know which I’m looking forward to more as I adore blind tasting, but it’s always a great experience to taste a variety or style and track it around the world. Whichever you want to come to, do get in touch sooner rather than later as spots disappear quickly!
Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:
8th February – ‘International Wine Tasting: Blind Tasting’ – 10 spots available – 30 euros/person
22nd February – ‘Cabernet Sauvignon Around the World – 10 spots available – 30 euros/person
Articles: I probably spend too much of my time reading online articles about wine. However, as a result I can find and select a choice few to share – here are my three favourites from last month!
1. ‘Negociants multiply in Burgundy’. With very little Burgundy being sold in Barcelona, and certainly not much en primeur, this may seem a little irrelevant to us. Yet it’s worth looking at the changing business models of the region, if only to see what happens when wines, and the land that makes them, becomes outrageously expensive. Most of the Burgundy I drink tends to be negociant wine, purely due to pricing and availability, yet there are some terrific examples out there. Jancis has a look at the subtly different approaches negociants take when setting up their business models, and the reasons behind them: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/negociants-multiply-in-burgundy
2. ‘How to train a wine judge’ by Jeni Port. I had my first experience judging wine competitions in November last year, and greatly enjoyed the experience. Having learnt to taste with the WSET was a huge advantage as it already focuses on objectively analysing wine, often under blind conditions, and coming to a conclusion of quality/variety/region/price/ageability with supporting arguments absolutely necessary. Australia is the country that celebrates wine competitions more than any other, with a famous ‘circuit’ that constantly tastes and analyses wines under competition conditions. I would love to be part of this one day but for now, I’ll make do with this short write-up by Jeni Port, concisely explaining how the system works and some tips on how to taste under these conditions. https://www.meininger.de/en/wine-business-international/how-train-wine-judge
3. ‘The lure (and economics) of en primeur’ by Richard Hemming MW. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of buying wine en primeur, yet I’ve not had the spare cash nor the storage space to consider it. The finances of it are increasingly less desirable yet the emotional tug is there. You’ve been to the tastings, met the wine-makers, taken studious notes and decided on your favourite wines. You’re buying the wines at a lower price, paying for storage and then VAT when they’re released to you. They arrive a year or two later, and you cast your mind back to the day you purchased them, check your notes and crack open a bottle. https://www.richardhemmingmw.com/blog/the-lure-and-economics-of-en-primeur
Wine of the Month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; here is my favourite wine of the month:
Catena Alta Malbec 2014: Catena Zapata remains an important winery for me, both as a reminder of some of the first quality wine I ever drank, one of the best winery visits of my life, as well as just being a constant provider of excellent wine for the last few years! Their 2009 Catena Alta Malbec blew me away, long before I become interested in wine, and this is the best vintage I’ve tried since then.100% Malbec from 4 high-altitude vineyards and aged in French oak for 18 months, 14.5% ABV. A lovely deep ruby colour and full of smokey dark fruits, oak spice, dark chocolate and sappy, herbal notes. The texture of this wine is its greatest feature, however; dense, supple and remarkably fresh – a Malbec worth ageing for a few years! One of the better Malbec wines on the market and another hit from the excellent Catena Zapata. For a full review of the wine and winery, check out my write-up here.
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That’s it for this months newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it and please, if you have any suggestions or things you would like to see get in touch! Either respond to me here or email to email@example.com I can’t wait to see you all soon for more wine, food and good company. Happy New Year, everyone!
Every month or two we try to organise a blind tasting in Barcelona, typically focusing on wines from around the world. Last night was our first after the Christmas break and we tasted our way around 6 different, typical wines; 3 whites and 3 reds. It’s not a completely 100% blind experience so for each wine there was a choice of 3, each with tasting notes, with only one being correct. As always, it was a lot of fun and a great way to not only try different wines, but learn a bit about how they’re structured, how they taste and what really defines them in comparison with other wines from around the world. Below is the descriptions that were handed out, as well as the revealing of which wine was which!
Wine 1 is a:
Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain: The quintessential Spanish white wine, particularly where Paella is involved! Albariño tends to be pale to medium lemon in colour and very aromatic, with notes of ripe citrus fruits, peach, white flowers and often sweet herbs or even a touch of honey. Acidity is high, especially in the leaner expressions to the north, and whilst time spent on lees can add a touch of weight and a savoury character, there’s rarely any oak used.
Chardonnay from Burgundy (Bourgogne Blanc), France: Generic Burgundy can be sourced from anywhere within the region, with the majority of Bourgogne Blanc hailing from the warmer Maconnaise and Cote Chalonnaise. Expensive, new oak is unlikely but older barrels are common, as is malolactic conversion. As a result, expect a wine without overly distinctive flavours, likely hovering around ripe stone fruits, citrus, toast and perhaps a touch of vanilla. Usually soft and slightly buttery on the palate, with a medium length finish.
Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa: Whilst like Loire Chenin this can come in all shapes and sizes, most South African Chenin Blanc tends to be slightly more rounded in style and are mostly dry or off-dry. Colours can vary but due to the warmer climate, aromas and flavours tend towards ripe stone fruits, tropical fruits, honey and a nuttiness with age. Premium examples are also often oak aged, darkening the colour and adding notes of vanilla and sweet spices to the wine.
Conclusion: A nice set of choices to start off with. The wine was the Louis Jadot Bourgogne Blanc, as correctly identified by 4/10, with the other 6 opting for Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It couldn’t be typical Albarino as it’s simply too creamy, aromatically neutral and frankly, obviously oaked. That leaves South African Chenin Blanc vs Chardonnay. Whilst White Burgundy tends towards freshness, it doesn’t have the natural acidity of Chenin Blanc, nor the riper flavours that would come from growing in a warm, Mediterranean climate. A great example of generic White Burgundy; soft, creamy and very ‘correct’.
Wine 2 is a:
Pinot Gris from Alsace, France: Pinot Gris is one of Alsace’s ‘noble’ grape varieties, produced in a variety of styles. Due to the long, dry growing season this is where full ripeness is most commonly achieved for this grape, resulting in pronounced aromas of ripe stone fruits, tropical fruits, honey and smoke. The wines often have a distinctly oily texture, high levels of alcohol and can occasionlly suffer from low levels of acidity, particularly in warmer years. Can range from dry to sweet, but rarely has any obvious oak character.
Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria: Gruner Veltliner is the most important grape variety in Austria, and is something of a chameleon. From light, peppery and full of fresh fruits to aromatic and distinctly tropical, there’s not much that ‘Gruner’ can’t do. Even in the riper, fuller bodied styles Gruner Veltliner retains high levels of acidity and there’s often a peppery sensation on the palate. Wines from Kamptal tend to be on the fuller bodied side, with occasional botrytis (honey and bitter orange characters).
Chenin Blanc from Savennieres, France: Savennieries is a small appellation in the Loire Valley, producing high quality, dry Chenin Blanc. Often full bodied and reasonably high in alcohol yet with high levels of acidity to keep it in balance. Concentrated flavours, typically of ripe apples, pears, warm straw and beeswax, sometimes with a chalky, mineral finish. Botrytis and new oak flavours are rare.
Conclusion: I thought this one may trip a few people up, but I’m delighted to report that 6/10 correctly guessed this as a Gruner Veltliner! No-one guessed Savennieres, which I thought may lead at least a few down the wrong path, but Pinot Gris accounted for the other 4 votes. Even from riper examples of Gruner Veltliner, there will always be a much higher level of natural acidity than Pinot Gris from Alsace, lower levels of alcohol and rarely residual sugar. This is a terrific single vineyard wine from the famous Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, tying for the favourite wine of the evening!
Wine 3 is a Sauvignon Blanc. Where’s it from?
Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca Valley, Chile: Casablanca Valley is a cool-climate region towards the coast of Chile’s Central Valley, cooled by the fogs drawn in from the Pacific Ocean. Due to the resulting extended ripening period, Sauvignon Blanc from this region tends to be quite full bodied, with medium-to-high levels of alcohol kept in check by good natural acidity. Flavours tend to consist of ripe citrus fruits, apples, some stone fruits and a smoky, herbal flavour.
Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand: The quintessential New World Sauvignon Blanc. Higher in alcohol that most examples from the Loire Valley, with bright, clean aromas and flavours of passion fruit, gooseberries, fresh grass and nettles. Acidity is nearly always high, although this can be diminished by small amounts of residual sugar; not noticeably sweet but creates a softer, smoother texture.
Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc) from Napa Valley, USA: Fume Blanc is a term used in the US wine industry to describe an oaked Sauvignon Blanc; hugely popular on local markets there. Due to the much warmer climate in Napa, these wines will have clear tropical fruit aromas such as pineapple and mango, yet will still have the characteristic gooseberry and nettle character of Sauvignon Blanc. Expect some sweet vanilla and baking spice character from the oak contact.
Conclusion: Another tricky choice. Sauvignon Blanc can vary so much throughout the world and there’s always a consistency in flavours, so it’s all honing in on the details. A Fume Blanc from the USA is likely to have clear and obvious oak, of which there was none on this wine. So why can’t it be a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? Alcohol levels were higher than typical (14%) and there wasn’t the same intense, pungent aromas you’d expect from this sun-bathed region, with more textural weight from the long, slow ripening season of Casablanca Valley. 4/10 came to the correct conclusion, whilst 4/10 went to New Zealand and 2/10 thought it was a Fume Blanc.
Wine 4 is a:
Gamay from Cru Beaujolais, France: Another pale coloured wine, Gamay wines tend to be restrained on the nose with aromas of fresh red fruits, violets and sometimes very light hints of oak. Alcohol tends to be no higher than 13.5% and tannins are noticeably low, although the fresh acidity makes for a refreshing beverage.
Tempranillo (Joven) from Rioja, Spain: Tempranillo is often thought of as being synonymous with oak of some sort, yet there is an abundance of young, juicy wines being made across northern Spain. Easily confused with Beaujolais as there is often carbonic maceration (fruity, bubblegum flavours result), and a similar pale colour. Fresh red fruits, refreshing acidity and soft tannins make for an eminently quaffable wine.
Dolcetto from Piedmont, Italy: Quite literally ‘little sweet one’ due to the its low acidity and bright fruit flavours, Dolcetto is usually a simple, very quaffable style of wine grown in several appellations in northern Italy. Despite the medium levels of alcohol and acidity, tannins can occasionally be quite prominent and compete with the fruit. These wines are usually best drank young and tend to be simple and refreshing.
Conclusion: By far and away the hardest flight of the evening, with very little to choose between the different styles. This was the only wine where no-one came to the right conclusion, opting instead for Tempranillo or Gamay in equal proportions. Flavour profiles are very similar between these wines, with simple red fruits, touches of anis and something sappy and herbal. The clue then is in the structure, in this case the tannins. Dolcetto typically has a medium level of firm, noticeable tannins whereas both Tempranillo Joven and Cru Beaujolais tends towards lower levels of softer, smoother tannins. A difficult one, indeed!
Wine 5 is a:
Grenache from Barossa Valley, Australia: Barossa Valley is the traditional heartland of quality Australian wine production, with some of the oldest vines in the world located here. Grenache thrives in these hot dry conditions, creating full bodied, high alcohol wines with flavours of strawberry jam, white pepper and dried herbs. The alcohol can be noticeably high at times, and the tannins will be soft and smooth. Oak is common although not usually overwhelming, with vanilla and baking spices the give-away.
Amarone della Valpolicella from Veneto, Italy: Amarone is the result of drying high quality Corvina, Rondinella and other grapes prior to fermentation, increasing the natural sugars, acids and flavours in the grapes. The result is a deep ruby, and a very full bodied, concentrated and powerful wine. Alcohol levels will be high, as will the acidity, and there is likely to be noticeable aromas of dried fruits, leather, tobacco and it usually finishes with a bitter twist (hence, Amarone). More modern styles may have noticeable oak characteristics.
Zinfandel from California, USA: Up until quite recently, Zinfandel was considered to the the US’s own grape variety, until we discovered it was identical to grapes in both Puglia and Croatia. Still, it undoubtedly thrives in the warmer, drier climates of California, creating full bodied, highly charged wines. There is often a sense of jamminess to the fruit, which ranges from cranberry to strawberry, noticeable American oak influences contributing caramel, vanilla and sweet spices, and sometimes even a black tea character. Very distinctive.
Conclusion: Then on the other end of the spectrum entirely, Californian Zinfandel! Another tough one, as all wines given are high in alcohol, full bodied and often tends towards over-ripeness. The Amarone is the first choice to eliminate as there isn’t enough of the soft, dried fruit character and the oak tends more towards American, with sweet caramel and vanilla. So, what’s the difference between Barossa Grenache and Zinfandel? The cranberry/boysenberry fruit profile and the almost raisin-like character that these wines take on, along with clearer influences of American oak. This led the majority astray with only 2 persons correctly identifying the wine as Zinfandel.
Wine 6 is a:
Merlot from Pomerol, France: Merlot really expresses itself most classically as a single variety in the clay soils of Pomerol, on the right bank of Bordeaux. Often there is a mixture of ripeness levels, meaning both ripe red and black fruits, vanilla and spices from new French oak, ripe, grainy tannins and moderate levels of acidity. Alcohol’s can be high in warmer vintages, although tend to be more moderate than New World Merlot.
Barbera from Piedmont, Italy: Barbera can range from a light, delicate wine to something quite powerful and dark. At its best, these wines are deeply coloured and intensely fruity, with notes of black cherries, earth, cocoa and soft spices prominent. Acidities are generally very high, yet tannins are quite low, so additional time spent in barrel is increasingly common.
Tempranillo from Toro, Spain: Tempranillo is at it’s most powerful and rustic in the hot, dry plains of DO Toro. Over the years, the skins of these grapes have become thicker, more tannic and darker; qualities that inevitably pass over into the resulting wines. Ripe, dark fruits, black pepper, vanilla and often notes of dried tobacco are much like their cousins in Ribera del Duero. However, the grippy tannins, powerful alcohol and signature spicy note are key here; far more rustic than their polished neighbours!
Conclusion: We’ll finish with something a little closer to home, correctly identified by 8/10 for the most successfully identified wine of the evening. Darkly coloured, powerful, alcoholic, chunky tannins… it’s definitely Toro! The level of tannin is a clear indicator that it can’t be a Barbera from Italy, with its typically low level of tannins, and it doesn’t have the softness of fruit or structure to reasonably be a Merlot based wine; even the more structured Pomerol wines would have a gentler, more finely grained tannic base.
A fun ,albeit difficult, evening of blind tasting! There will be another on the 8th February, with details released on the 1st on our Maestrazgo Wine Club page, so do be sure to check it out. It’s a great way to learn a little bit about your own palate, the process of tasting and have a great evening with a lovely group of people! See you at the next one.
The question of how intrinsic alcohol is to the enjoyment of wine was discussed at some length in 2017, amongst some of the more thoughtful bloggers and wine writers of the world. The consensus seems to be that, mostly, alcohol is indeed an important part of the picture and this is conveniently confirmed by just how awful non-alcoholic wines currently are, without needing to touch upon the pleasant numbing effect of having a few drinks. Yet despite that, my personal experience is that consumers are intentionally opting for wines with lower levels of alcohol. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve seen this first-hand on several occasions, in slightly different guises. From a Polish man looking for help choosing wine but didn’t want “anything Parkerised, you know, anything over 14% alcohol'” to a surprising statement from a Madrid-based writer that high levels of alcohol in quality wine “goes against everything I’ve been taught.”
Ignoring the obvious, logical flaws in thinking like the above, there are clearly sound reasons for wanting to drink wines with lower levels of alcohol. I’ve thought about it and whilst there’s some overlap, they seem to mainly fall into one of three categories: Health, Taste and Fashion.
Health. Whilst health authorities across the world differ on what is considered to be a ‘safe’ amount of alcohol to drink, it’s commonly accepted that drinking too much has a pretty good chance of hurting you: ethanol, after all, is a proven carcinogen. In fact, if there is discussion about how much is acceptable of any substance, it’s a fair assumption that it’s probably not great for you, on the whole. The same could be said of anything, of course, and a life without alcohol is considerably less interesting than a life with it. I drink wine on an almost daily basis and as a result, it pays to be conscious of both quantity, but also the strength of the wine. There’s an enormous difference between a 9.5% ABV Mosel Riesling and a 16% ABV Chateauneuf du Pape, or even a 12% ABV Albariño and a 15.5% ABV Garnacha. If you’re drinking regularly, opting for wines with lower levels of alcohol will have a tangible benefit.
There’s also the consideration of how alcohol affects your day to day activities. Whilst the pleasures of alcoholic inebriation are an undeniably large part of why we drink, it’s not always convenient to be tipsy throughout the day, and for example, I tend to consume the majority of the wine I drink around lunch. Needless to say, too much powerful wine and productivity drops off severely afterwards, whereas a glass or two of Mosel Kabinett and I’m bounding around, full of energy (The jury’s out on which version my fiance dislikes the most). Add into the mix the dangers of driving or operating any sort of machinery under the influence, and there are clear benefits from a health perspective to opt for lighter wines.
Taste. There’s an unusual group of people in the world, who choose wine primarily on how good it tastes. Apparently they haven’t learnt that if you chill it down enough, or dilute it with sparkling water, it doesn’t taste of much. However, as they persist in going to the effort of serving wine at correct temperatures and often in the right glassware, all in the hope of enhancing flavours and textures, it’s worth considering how alcohol might affect this.
High alcohol levels in wine typically mean one of two things. Either the grapes are grown in a very warm, dry climate or have been left to ripen for extended periods of time past the typical harvest date. Sometimes, it’s even a combination of the two. Therefore, it’s not just the alcohol to consider but the invariably riper, often jammy or stewed fruit flavours and aromas that tend to coincide with potent wines. On the palate, wines with high levels of alcohol will struggle more to maintain balance. Ever had a wine and it prickled your mouth, like there’s something hot inside it? A warming sensation in the throat? That would be high levels of alcohol, without enough acidity or flavour intensity to keep it in check. Highly alcoholic wines also tend to struggle to deliver precise flavours, often tasting blowsy and generic, and often have a sensation of sweetness due to the high levels of glycerol. Tannins are typically, but not always, softer and smoother, and the wine will feel heavier and more full bodied.
This all sounds mainly negative but it’s assuming an unbalanced, poorly made wine: the inverse argument could easily have been made for cool-climate wines with low levels of alcohol. There are thousands of superb wines in the world with high levels of alcohol, with precise, complex flavours, refreshing acidity, finely-grained tannins and excellent flavour intensity. The trick, as in all wine, is finding that balance. It also highlights the dangers of using alcohol as a barometer for choosing wine.
Take the example of the Polish gentleman, looking for typical Spanish wine with less than 14% ABV This excludes pretty much all of southern Spain, 95% of Garnacha based wines (Garnacha accumulates sugar rapidly and early harvesting runs the risk of unripe flavours and phenolics), most Ribera del Duero and even the riper examples from cooler regions such as Galicia and Rioja. As a result, I was only able to recommend a handful of wines, some of which he found too tannic and tough. Alcohol levels mean very different things depending on where the grapes were grown; 14% in AOC St. Estephe is an unusually ripe, powerful wine, whereas in DO Toro it’s positively lightweight!
Fashion. Increasingly, it’s fashion that seems to be playing the greatest role when it comes to alcohol levels. Jancis Robinson has conveniently just published something along the same lines, talking about the division in wine styles. More and more producers are now focusing on freshness, more precise flavours, higher levels of acidity and delicacy in their wines. Ambient yeasts are in, cultured out; early harvesting is preferred over grapes harvested at full phenolic ripeness; new vineyards are being planted at ever-increasing altitudes and so on. This is no bad thing in and of itself and it’s fair to say that my own personal tastes tend towards these fresher styles of wines. However, as with every fashion swing, dogma has an unpleasant tendency to creep into the conversation.
Take my second example of the person who believed that high levels of alcohol were incompatible with quality wine. Without getting into why this is categorically untrue, it does showcase how easily certain wine styles and practices can influence consumers. In wine the most obvious example of this is so-called ‘natural’ wine, where there are no additions or adjustments of any kind in the winery (sugar, acid, tannins and so on), no cultured yeasts are used and wines are generally unfined and unfiltered. With minimal spraying and treatments in the vineyards, fungi and disease around harvest become even more of an issue, so grapes are often harvested much earlier, with lower levels of sugars and higher levels of acidity. Ambient yeasts don’t tend to be able to convert high levels of sugar into alcohol past a certain point anyway, and there’s no adjustment for the lower levels of acidity if grapes are over-ripened (as grapes ripen, sugars increase and acidity decreases so most warmer climates readjust acidity levels, mainly using tartaric acid). The net result is usually a wine with a lower level of alcohol than its peers; refreshing, often delicious but certainly not the only way to produce good wine.
Overall, it has to be said that the move towards freshness and delicacy has been well received across the wine-drinking world. From the 1990’s through to roughly 2010ish, the trend was very much for maximum grape ripeness, heavy levels of oak, soft, thick textures and, almost unavoidably, high levels of alcohol. I want to drink these wines as much as I want to drink the ciderish, acetic examples of badly made ‘natural’ wine. Fortunately, the best producers find a happy middle ground, as they always do, and the improvements in viticultural sciences are allowing for a better balance of sugar, acidity and ripeness in grapes across all climates.
From a consumers point of view, context is everything. Choosing or not a wine based on it’s alcoholic level without considering the variety, style and origin is a good way to miss some of the worlds great vinous experiences. From mouth-coating, rich Barossa Shiraz to earthy, spicy Chateauneuf du Pape, the world is full of excellent quality, big, bold wines. Just don’t drink too much of it over lunch!
One of the inescapable facts of learning about wine is that you simply can’t know it all; it’s simply too vast and fragmented an industry. Likewise, you can’t possibly taste every region to the same level of depth, and as a result, most professionals end up specialising. One of the areas I have neglected somewhat over the past few years are the Canary Islands; 7 small islands hovering off the western coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean, yet still an autonomous region of Spain. With it now being the fashion to explore indigenous, preferably old-vine, grape varieties, the wines from these shores have suddenly become very popular indeed. Neither phylloxera nor French varieties settled here and the result is a smattering of hidden treasures; typically volcanic slopes, littered with Listan Negro, Malvasia and Negramoll. Whilst I’ve enjoyed tasting some of these wines in passing at events, I’ve never sat down and become acquainted with a bottle over a day or two, so I opted for ‘La Solana’, a single vineyard, 100% Listan Negro wine from the leading producer of Tenerife, Suertes del Marques.
Suertes del Marques are located in a north-central part of Tenerife, known as DO Valle de la Orotava (See here for upcoming, forward-thinking changes to the 5 appellations that make up the wine scene in Tenerife). A relatively recent producer, founded in 2006 by Jonathan Garcia Lima, they’ve since rose to fame with their pure, mineral inflected wines, typically made in a minimal intervention style. Clearly influenced by Burgundy, their wines are organised by ‘village’ wines and single vineyards, the latter of which are fermented in open-topped concrete vats and aged in 500L neutral oak barrels, whereas the ‘village’ wines tend to be produced in stainless steel.
The most interesting factor in all this though, are the vines themselves. Phylloxera never settled in Canary Islands (It is generally discouraged by volcanic soils) and as a result, the average vine age is incredibly high, often well over 100 years old. In DO Valle de la Orotava, they’re also trained in a remarkable system known as ‘El Cordon Trenzado’, literally ‘The Braided Coil’, which historically allowed for polyculture in the vineyards. The interwoven wines can be moved from side-to-side, allowing for potato crops to thrive underneath, and make for a unique sight. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The recent ‘discovery’ of the potential here shouldn’t come as a surprise; it comes off the back of other such discoveries in Priorat, Swartland, Etna and many others. For producers willing to put in the effort of making and selling these wines, there is an eager market waiting for them!
100% Listan Negro from vines aged between 80-150 years old, from the La Solana vineyard. Fermented with ambient yeast (no mention of whole bunch or destemmed) in open-topped concrete containers, then malolactive conversion and ageing in 500L, old oak barrels for 14 months. Unfiltered. 13.5% ABV.
Pale ruby in colour, and not immediately pleasant on the nose! There’s a bit of sulphur/reduction that needs to blow off, so decanting is definitely recommended. Once it does, though, there’s a lovely mixture of fresh damsons, dried herbs, undergrowth and a rocky sort of minerality. Very fresh on the palate, with a real raciness to the acidity and quite firm tannins, with a sour plum character and the same clean, mineral sensation on the finish. This is very much my kind of regular-drinking wine; refreshing, clean and very pure fruited, although I can see it not being everyone’s cup of tea due to the lean structure and initial reduction. It’ll likely be softer and more approachable in a few years time, and there’s a clear connection to the sort of new-wave wine-making sweeping across north-western Spain at the moment. 90Pts.
One of the things I want to write more about are the wines I taste. Typically I’ve used a long-form approach on Instagram, which I intend to keep on doing, but even then it isn’t enough to really explain what a wine is all about. This obviously flies in the face of the industry who are constantly seeking to simplify their explanations of wine, but the more I learn, the more I realise there is no simple explanation to why a wine tastes the way that it does, and so I’m not going to join them in their quest. Instead, I’m going to really dig into some of the better wines I try, and try to communicate exactly what makes them so good. Coincidentally, I recently tried the new vintage of one of the first wines to make me sit up and pay attention, so I’m delighted to make this my first real wine review on winecuentista.com.
Catena Alta Malbec 2014
Tasting note at the bottom
If you know Argentinian wine, you know Catena Zapata. They’ve been making wine in Argentina since 1902, but their claim to fame is really the work they did throughout the 80’s to put Argentinian wine firmly on the map. It’s a familiar story to those in the wine industry; innovative, brave individuals going against the grain to follow the path of quality over quantity. Nicolas Catena, the 3rd generation to run the estate, spent a short sabbatical studying economics at Berkeley, California, spending a good amount of his free time visiting wineries with his wife Elena and infant daughter, Adrianna. It was a visit that would inspire him and ultimately, accelerate the Argentinian wine industries move towards quality wine. Upon his return, he started to focus on high quality plantings of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. He sold his families bulk wine interests and experimented with different clones of Malbec, all grown in his own vineyards and propagated thereafter when the original cuttings from Cahors didn’t offer the finesse he was looking for.
At the time, he was considered crazy for a few reasons. Firstly, premium Argentinian wine didn’t really exist in the 80s and certainly not on the export markets. Secondly, most Malbec plantings were at the lower altitudes of Luyan de Cuyo and Maipu (700m above sea level) and the idea of high altitude plantings was met with scorn. ‘Malbec needs heat to ripen – you’ll never ripen it up there!’ ‘Up there’ now refers to the most exciting regions of Mendoza in the Uco Valley, where grapes are planted up to 1700m above sea level. He had chosen the most north-westerly corner of the valley, protected from frost and strong winds by the nearby Andes mountain range, planting Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay on different soil types. He named the vineyard Adrianna, after his daughter, and it remains their most highly regarded vineyard to date, responsible for the flagship ‘Nicolas Catena’ wine and several micro-productions, including the superb White Bones and White Stones Chardonnays.
In 2018, Catena Zapata remains the single largest producer of premium and super-premium wine in Argentina, with a broad portfolio of wines at various price points. The Argento range are simple, easy-drinking varietal wines, with the Alamos range a step-up in price and quality, and the basic Catena range a step above that. The wines get really interesting, however, with Catena Alta; varietal wines made from grapes come from their own vineyards planted at altitude, typically a blend from 3-4 different vineyards. Their top range of wines come almost exclusively from Adrianna, with 5 individual micro-productions of Chardonnay and Malbec the most recent additions.
The estate is ably led by Laura Catena, another of Nicolas’s daughters, and likely the most important woman in South American wine at the moment. Picking up with her father left off, Laura has invested huge amounts of money and time into Research and Development, resulting in the highly acclaimed Catena Institute, which continues to search soils, clones, sunlight intensity, phylloxera and much more. When I visited in 2016, I was also struck by the fact that they keep an entire cellar of international wine so that their staff can taste broadly, refining their palates and gaining inspiration from producers across the world.
100% Malbec sourced from the Nicasia Vineyard (Altamira), Angelica Vineyard (Maipu), Piramide Vineyard (Agrelo) and mostly from Adrianna Vineyard (Tupungato). Destemmed and fermented in old oak and large vats with ambient yeast, with MLF in barrel. Aged for 18 months in French oak (No % given for new oak). 14.5% ABV
Vibrant, dark ruby in colour; quite a bit lighter than it’s predecessors. Smokey, dark fruits, oak spice and dark chocolate is underpinned by a sense of something sappy and herbal. The same smokey, dark fruit comes to the fore on the palate but the texture is what stands out here; dense, supple and yet so fresh. Full of energy and vibrancy; completely at odds with the richness of the 2009 yet just as good. A clear change of direction, in line with current fashion? Whatever the reason, this is a delicious bottle of wine and will certainly benefit from further ageing. No hint of the 14.5% alcohol except for the weight and soft texture. This is the bottle of wine I want to open for people who lazily dismiss Malbec as a cheap, super-market choice. 93Pts.