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

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