This is the story of how we have poured our lives, our passion, our spirit into transforming a scrub laden desert into some of the most beautiful and unique vineyards in the world. This is the story of how we have passed our knowledge from father to son, and daughter, across the generations and blended that collective memory of family with state-of-the-art science from the new world of viticulture. It is a tale of taking risks, of backing a hunch, of making a giant leap of faith, of enjoying a little luck along the way, to make our treasured terroir in Mendoza the fountainhead for the wines that carry our name.
It is part of our family’s folklore that our forefather Nicola Catena, who sailed from Italy to Argentina in 1898, celebrated leaving the famine in Europe for this plentiful new land by eating a piece of virtually raw steak for breakfast each morning. Best described as a tireless optimist, he firmly believed that he had found the promised land in Mendoza, where he planted his first Malbec vineyard in 1902. Malbec had been a blending grape in Bordeaux. But Nicola suspected it would find its hidden splendour in the Argentine Andes. Domingo, his son, inherited that dream and took the family winery to the next level, becoming one of the largest vineyard holders in Mendoza.
By the 1960s, however, Familia Catena was struggling. The Argentine economy was in shambles and inflation rates were soaring. One year, Domingo realized that it would cost him more to harvest than to leave the fruit on the vines. He asked his twenty-two year old son Nicolás, a recent PhD graduate in economics, what to do about such a dilemma. Nicolás advised him not to harvest. Domingo could not follow his son’s advice with a clear conscience and picked anyway. Nicolás still remembers the sadness he felt for his father that year.
Nicolás Catena would never use the word about himself - a less boastful spirit, it’s hard to imagine - but he has been the quiet revolutionary in the Catena family history book. He has charted the family’s path to the new frontier of winemaking, drawing on lessons learned from the land and in the classroom, then applying his education to dare to challenge the conventional wisdom.
Taking the reigns of the family vineyards and wineries in the mid 1960s, he concentrated on expanding distribution throughout Argentina during years of turmoil in the 1970s. But in the early 1980s, Nicolás left Argentina to become a visiting professor of economics at the University of California, on the world-renowned campus at Berkeley. The political and economic situation in Argentina was difficult, with a military government that had just declared war on the United Kingdom and inflation rates of more than 1000 per cent per year.
California, and especially Napa Valley were an inspiration to Nicolás and his wife Elena, who spent weekends visiting the area with their youngest daughter Adrianna in a backpack. Until that time, no one in the new world had dreamed of rivaling France.
Nicolás Catena returned to Mendoza with a vision in mind. From one day to the other, he sold his table wine producing company, keeping only Bodegas Esmeralda, the fine wine branch of the family business. At that time Argentina was perceived as a bulk wine producer and Nicolás was told by many of his colleagues in Argentina that he was “completamente loco” (completely crazy).
But Nicolás Catena is not someone to be easily discouraged. During the 1980s, Nicolás set out to discover the best places to plant vineyards in Mendoza. When recently asked why he decided to plant Chardonnay and Malbec in Gualtallary, at almost 5,000 feet elevation, Nicolás answered, “I felt that the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation, by taking risks”. His own vineyard manager had told him that Malbec would never ripen there, but it did, and beautifully. Nicolás found that Mendoza was exceptional for vine growing, with each high altitude valley providing a unique flavor and aroma profile of the same varietal. He found that the poor soils near the Andes, discarded by the original European immigrants due to their low fertility, were actually ideal for quality viticulture. And that the desert climate was an asset because it allowed him to control quality and hang time through strict irrigation control.
Then came the challenge of what to do with Malbec. Nicolás did not have his father’s confidence in Malbec. Domingo Catena fiercely believed that Argentine Malbec could make a wine as worthy as any first growth Bordeaux. Nicolás was not sure that Malbec would be able to age. In 1989, after his father Domingo died, Nicolás put all his sorrow into trying to see if his father’s intuition was right. It took 5 years of working on the 60 year old Angélica vineyard before Nicolás was satisfied enough to make a Catena Malbec in 1994. Then came the question of which clones to plant in the new vineyards. Since there was no existing Argentine Malbec clonal selection, Nicolás decided to bring clones from Cahors, France. The French Chardonnay clones had given him his best white. But results for French Malbec clones were disappointing. They grew large berries and bunches with rustic aromas and flavors.
Nicolás set out to develop his own selection of Argentine Malbec clones planting 145 clones in the La Pirámide vineyard. Of these, he selected the best five and began to plant them in different terroirs and altitudes.
By 1994, Nicolás and his team felt that they had identified their best vineyard lots for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. First with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1994, Nicolás bottled a small cuvée from the oldest and most uniform lots in the La Pirámide vineyard. Three hundred cases of Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon were made. In 1995, Nicolás bottled his first Chardonnay from cool climate Tupungato region, sourcing the fruit from Lot 4 of the Domingo vineyard for the Catena Alta Chardonnay. The next year, in 1996, two acres of lot 18 of the Angélica vineyard produced the best Malbec, and Nicolás made his first Catena Alta Malbec.
1997 was a phenomenal Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, and Nicolás Catena started plans to make another top cuvée, a wine that would fulfill those dreams that had started in the early 1980s. The wine, named Nicolás Catena Zapata (Zapata is Nicolás' mother's maiden name), was a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec. It was released in 2001 through a series of blind tastings held in the USA and Europe where it was compared blind to Château Latour, Haut Brion, Solaia, Caymus and Opus One. The Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997 came in either first or second in every tasting.
In 2001 Nicolas' daughter Laura took over the Research & Development program at Bodega Catena Zapata. An Emergency Room physician with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, Laura brought a very strong science background to the family winery's R&D project. She immediately set about working with the high altitude Malbec that her father had planted. Laura was sure that this Argentine varietal, planted in these extreme microclimates, would yield somehting truly special.
Laura's determination to produce a world class Malbec led her and the viticultural team to conduct an actual plant by plant selection of the top Malbec lots in their high altitude vineyards. These Zapata plants were managed and harvested separately to isolate their incredible potential.
In 2004 this program produced such extraordinary fruit that the winemakeing team decided to ferment the fruit directly in new oak barrels. The result were three spectacular new Malbecs which showed the incredible quality of the family's high altitude Malbec vineyards:
Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard Malbec - a selection of the best plants from Lot 1 of the Nicasia Vineyard, located at an elevation of 3593 ft in the far southerly Altamira in La Consulta district of San Carlos.
Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard - a selection of the best plants from Lots 3 & 9 of the Adrianna Vineyard, located at an elevation of 4757 ft in the Gualtallary district of Tupungato.
Catena Zapata Malbec Argentina - a selection of the best plants from Lots 3 & 9 of the Adrianna Vineyard and Lot 1 of the Nicasia Vineyard.
Nicolás Catena and his daughter Laura
Domingo V.Catena with his parents, sisters and brothers
Domingo V. Catena and Angélica Zapata