Wine Review: Catena Alta Malbec 2014

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

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.

Tasting note

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.

Purchased from Vinissimus for €35.15

Thoughts on: Carignan, Cariñena and Samsó

Carignan is an interesting grape variety and caused me a few conflicting moments in my very early days of learning about wine. In the late 20th century, Carignan was known as being a simple grape with limited potential that was massively over-yielded in the south of France, producing in excess of 200hl/ha in more than a few cases. This was how I first learnt about it and also how I encountered one of my first conflicts with the accepted facts. You see, Carignan is noted as a French grape but it’s entirely likely to be from DO Cariñena in Aragon, hence the Spanish name for the grape, although oddly it’s almost exclusively grown within Catalunya now with DO Cariñena focusing quite a bit more on Grenache. Way to miss an open goal, Spain. (There was a briefly interesting discussion about this on Twitter, unfortunately spoiled by one of the participants channeling his inner Donald Trump. Worth a read anyway!)

Anyway, the Carignan I’ve tried before starting my formal studies on wine was nothing like I subsequently read in textbooks. In DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat, some of my very favourite wines were either a Carignan heavy blend or, better yet, 100% of the grape itself. The dark, smoky and almost metallic flavours of the wine were intense, concentrated and utterly delicious. So why then am I reading this nonsense? Well, aside from the WSET Level 3 material being slightly outdated at the time (they’ve since revamped the entire course) it seems that consumers across the world are still a bit in the dark with regards to the potential quality of Carignan. Conversely, wine-makers seem to be latching onto it in some unlikely places. Quite familiar with varying levels of the grape produced locally, I hunted down a couple of bottles from Chile and Argentina to taste, more to see what was going on than anything else.

Villalobos Carignan Reserve 2013

When I first discovered that Chile had some of the oldest Carignan in the world, I was a little taken aback. I couldn’t say why, it just didn’t seem to add up; traditionally Carignan is a very warm climate grape and although on the other side of the Andes to Mendoza, one of the warmest climates in the wine-making world, Chile tends to be more gently Mediterranean. However, particularly in the Maule Valley, Chile is home to some outstandingly good Carignan. So much so in fact, that they have an organisation dedicated to the protection and support of producers who want to work with these vines, VIGNO. Having previously tried the excellent Lomajes de Vina Roja, I was excited to try some more examples and I was already a fan of Villalobos after trying their delicious Carmenere.

Villalobos are a small producer in Colchagua Valley who historically only made wine for their own consumption. That changed when the wine-maker, Martin Rosseau, died in an accident and the family decided to continue with the production and release it commercially in 2009. Since then, the wines have gone on to win great acclaim, very ‘new wave’ and minimal intervention in style with bright fruit, soft herbal notes and a lively, fun character. At only 12.5% alcohol, this is by far the lightest, freshest Carignan I’ve tried stylistically and what it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in charm and sheer fun. A bit steep at 30 a bottle in Spain, but well worth the experiment.

Famila Cecchin Carignan 2012

Over to the other side of the Andes now, to see how Argentina is getting along with the same grape variety. There are two main differences here compared to their neighbours and rivals. Firstly, the climate is considerably warmer and drier in Mendoza than in any part of Chile, with one of the most continental climates on earth. Secondly the vines tend to much younger. I haven’t yet been able to discover why Chile planted Carignan so much earlier than Argentina but the difference is telling, with Chile owning vines with well over 50 years of age in some cases.

Interestingly I’d actually visited this winery in 2016 but don’t recall having tried this particular wine. Cecchin are a quality produce of organic wines in Argentina, with only 11 hectares under vines and a small production as a result, focusing quite heavily on varieties from Spain and France. The wines, like Villalobos, are quite ‘new wave’ with low additions of sulphur, indigenous yeasts and generally a much lighter profile than other wineries within the area. This was quite a bit more like the Carignan I was used to, I suppose due to the similarity in climate and grape ripeness, with lots of ripe red and dark fruits, earthy aromas and the tell-tale, ferrous smell I associate with concentrated Carignan. Still, quite a refreshing wine despite the 14.3% alcohol, but lacking the intensity and depth I’ve come to expect from the grape. I suppose living in Catalunya has made me slightly spoilt!


Ultimately, it’s not possible to compare grape varieties based on such a small sample size but it does seem that there is one clear distinction between Carignan produced here and that in Catalunya; style. Where Catalunya revels in the depth and intensity of the flavours in their old-vine Samsó, the Catalan name for the grape, the New World seems to be more focused on producing lighter styles of wine from it. Oak is dialled back and the wines seem more appropriate for younger, easier drinking whereas the very best Samsó from Montsant and Priorat can age for well over a decade. Call me biased but I still can’t see past the top producers of Priorat where Carignan is concerned, although I look forward to trying more examples from around the world and seeing how they’re getting on with it. If anyone finds any examples from California or South Africa knocking around Spain, let me know!

Here are my favourite local producers of 100% or at least Carignan dominated wines. Prices range from moderately to outrageously expensive!

Producer – Wine – Region

Clos Mogador – Manyetes Vi di Vila – Priorat

Cal Battlet – 5 Partides – Priorat

Mas Doix – Doix 1902 – Priorat

Vall Llach – Mas de la Rosa – Priorat

Bodegas Mas Alta – La Basseta – Priorat

Ferrer Bobet – Seleccio Especial – Priorat

Alfredo Arribas – Trossos Vells – Montsant

Portal de Montsant – Hugo – Montsant

Celler Masroig – Masroig – Montsant

Edetaria – Finca la Pedrissa – Terra Alta

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