Laura Catena, 4th generation of Catena Zapata, a doctor and a vintner by profession  (Photo credit- Catena Zapata)

Laura Catena, 4th generation of Catena Zapata, a doctor and a vintner by profession  (Photo credit- Catena Zapata)

At the turn of the nineteenth century Nicola Catena, an immigrant of humble origin from La Marche in Italy came to Argentina to raise his family and give them a better quality of life. With his viticultural background, he chose Mendoza at the foothill of Andes as the location to plant his first vineyards that started the Catena Zapata’s story.  Little did he know, that this modest winery that started in 1902 on the banks of Tunuyan river as a small operation, would eventually grow leaps and bounds through pioneering efforts of his devoted future generations, through contributions from his son Domingo Catena and wife Angelica Zapata, thereafter, passing over to their son Nicolás Catena Zapata in 1960 and now in the loving hands of the fourth generation, Laura Catena who has taking the lead along with her father.

Hard work and persistence in the face of adversity has always been the motto and despite harvest and vintage failures, what has not failed is the determination to strive for quality and reaching for the best, which is a highlight in the genes of Catena family. The 1980s was a turnaround point for the winery when Nicolas Catena decided that time had come to move away from producing traditionally primitive styles of oxidised and high alcoholic bulk wines into what he envisioned was a huge notch upward move into premium fine Argentine wine sector. With many years of academic research under his belt, he used his economist background and experience gained from learning about top class American wines to revolutionalise Catena Zapata into a premium bottled brand. He did so by incorporating changes in winemaking style into perfecting and in many cases surpassing european techniques and by studying areas that could serve as unique micro climate and cooler temperature sites for planting vines that can produce intensely sumptuous grapes with optimum ripeness and acidity.  Adrianna Vineyard was one such location that was unearthed at 1500m above sea level and has become the living example of high quality high altitude vineyard producing top class fine Argentine wines. Nicolas Catena is highly revered and respected as the wine architect of Argentina and the iconic producer credited with turning around Argentina into not just an exclusive high quality niche producer but also a leading 21st century exporter of fine wines from Argentina. The current generation of Catena Zapata along with Laura have devoted their lives into spreading this prestigious image and building awareness of Argentina as the country worthy of international wine status.

Not only does Laura have the Wine legacy to upkeep, she also has a distinguished identity on her own right. She is a practicing General Physician who holds a degree in Medicine from Stanford University apart from being a Science graduate from Harvard. Now she practices both Medicine and Wine simultaneously, maintaining equal levels of passion and dedication in both. Two noble professions that involve a lot of hard work but also contribute to longevity and well-being. I was fortunate to do a full range of tasting of the premium wines of Catena Zapata when Laura Catena was in London in Nov 2016 and here are excerpts from my interview with her.

Catena Zapata Master class with Laura Catena (Photo credit- Sumi_Sumilier)

Catena Zapata Master class with Laura Catena (Photo credit- Sumi_Sumilier)

Sumilier:  Please share with us the turning point that made your father, Nicolas Catena gravitate away from the philosophy of mass bottled brand of erstwhile tannic styles of Argentine wines towards a unique, exclusive brand of fine wines.  

Laura C: The 1980s was the era of military regime in Argentina and period of the Argentinian military invasion of Falklands (Malvina) islands in particular was the highest period of instability in Argentina as you may remember and during this time my father Nicolas Catena was living in California and everywhere you went, the talk of the town was the discussion on the Judgement of Paris tasting (of 1976 organised by Steven Spurrier) where Californian wines had outperformed the French Bordeaux first growths. New styles of wines by country mavericks in California winning over centuries of established aristocratic Bordeaux vintner families had become such a popular topic in every wine tasting and dinner that my father also started getting pondering how over how he could bring it over to Argentina. Until then, no one had the audacity to question centuries of traditional wine making philosophies of France and Italy. The victory of California was what tempted by father to abandon old Argentinian methods of wine making and strive towards creating a unique concept of high altitude and micro climate focused wines in Argentina, and the hope that they could out-perform the cult status of established old world wines is the challenge that he took up as his life long mission.

Sumilier: What were the changes made as a result of this eye-opening event?

Laura C: Well for one in the winery, my father had to establish temperature control in the wine making process as the wineries were extremely high temperatures. Also he moved to using smaller French oak barrels and investing in the right kind of soft pneumatic presses that we did not have during those times. On the viticultural side, he had to look at lowering the yields and focus on grape selections because until then, the emphasis was on quantity and not on the quality of grapes harvested. Hence the entire process from grass root level had to be changed to reflect the quality mission that became key for Catena. Traditionally vineyards had been planted by the Italian immigrants on the south and eastern side of Mendoza with only very few areas in the western Luján de Cuyo possessing some highly prestigious sites but many of the sites on the eastern Mendoza suffered from extremely heat and drought conditions. Creating age worthy and concentrated wines was the need of the hour.  Hence my father decided to search westwards towards the mountains and that is how Uco Valley came up as a possible proposition. Having the courage to explore and reach out for high altitude was the biggest achievement that only he has to be credited for – that was the turning point which revolutionised wine industry in our country. Going 4000 and 5000 feet above sea level, where there may have been a few orchards but never a vineyard; only he could have envisioned that! Afterwards, we built our wineries closer to the hills, one at Luján de Cuyo so we can ease on transportation times for grapes, the pyramid like winery based on Mayan architecture that has become an iconic site and another one at Uco Valley.

Pre-phyllosera Malbec populations (Photo credit- Catena Zapata)

Pre-phyllosera Malbec populations (Photo credit- Catena Zapata)

Sumilier: Clonal selection was also a very important part of the change that your brought about. How did you attain that?

We had gorgeous selections of Malbec that were pre-phylloxeric so they were the vines present in France at the time of 1855 classification of the Grand Crus, that were brought to Mendoza in 1852 even before Phylloxera epidemic wiped out the best vines. These were hundreds of diverse mixed populations that were lost in France as a result of the Phylloxera that ravaged Europe towards the end of 19th century but we were very fortunate to have retained in Argentina the full range of diverse populations (Argentina is a phylloera free country) and so we could choose the best clones from there. And that’s how we went about making our selection of the oldest and most beautiful parcels such as Lot 18 that gave us the best quality Malbec, that made the Angelica Vineyards planted in the 1930s. These were then planted all throughout our vineyards. By way of population selection, we still retain the 130 diverse varieties and use the ones that give lower yields, concentrated and smaller berries that are responsible for age worthy wines. From here came our first vintage of high quality Malbec from 1995 that gained the most international recognition and awards.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1990, came from a selection of old vines that had been in Argentina for about a hundred years in our oldest vineyards and this was the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon that was selected winning 90 Parker Points, which gave us our first international exposure and also our first batch of exports.

Sumilier: You have taken the philosophy of microclimate a step further to introduce microclimate assemblage. What was the concept behind it?

Laura C: Every region depending on the altitude will have a certain climate. But each microclimate has a set of different interplaying factors that affect ultimate grape styles. The Agrelo region has clay rich soils and this clay soil makes the environment cooler by a couple of degrees and that creates a different terroir than the hills that have stony soils, which make the region warmer by retaining warmth. In a nutshell, it is a combination of climate, sunlight and soil that affects the style of wine. What I mean by microclimate assemblage is to take Malbec from a warmer lower altitude and blend it with a cooler higher altitude Malbec and when these are blended together in measured quantities, we get the most balanced and elegant wine – taking the acidity and fresh aromatics from the higher altitude grape and the richness and graininess of the tannins from the warmer climate grape. Which is my new way of expressing our terroir.

Sumilier : Apart from your dad, who is your role model?

Laura C: I have many role models in and outside the industry. Within the industry I look up to Aubert de Villaine, of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He has not only taken responsibility of his winery but of of his region too which is what I passionately follow as well.  Very important to promote the whole region and not just our own wines. Preserving the family traditions and terroir of Burgundy is also of foremost importance to him. He has inspired me to focus on preserving a way of life that is as important as selling wine. Through the Catena Institute of Wine that we have started, our mission is to bring out information of our scientific research on climate changes, soil structure and share it with other producers of our regions. The ultimate aim is to use this for betterment of wine standards and promote more job opportunities which will in turn build our local economy.  That way we preserve local talent and ultimately preserve our culture and region.

Sumilier : What has been the toughest challenge for you as a vintner?

Laura C: Being a farmer is the toughest challenge. Hail can destroy vineyards, frost can kill grapes. The uncertainly is painful but it is also necessary to understand and appreciate as I try to gain strength from it. To accept the vagaries of climate and to be grateful for each and every day of what life and nature gives us. That is what I have learnt and preach as a doctor and as a farmer.  The other challenge is to face situations where we are openly told that we cannot compete with a Grand Cru Classe from France but I am determined to fight for my region and demonstrate my country’s ability because I believe we can do produce age worthy and with time it is only becoming more and more established.

Sumilier: And an achievement you are most proud of?

The most outstanding achievement for me is working towards elevating the quality and prestige of our region. Talking and raising awareness about Argentine fine wines and their potential. I have spent hours and hours doing research and finding out what we can do best in our soils and communicating that tirelessly to the world. Today I am proud to say that Argentina today is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to where we were 20 years ago. Our bottles are being sold in auctions and are now worthy of prestige. And I am very proud to have worked so hard towards this achievement that Argentina has gained by pushing itself towards Quality status, despite the indepth competition from other new world countries.

Tasting of Catena Zapata wines with Laura Catena in Nov 2016 (Photo credit: Sumi_Sumilier)

Tasting of Catena Zapata wines with Laura Catena in Nov 2016 (Photo credit: Sumi_Sumilier)

Sumilier: Argentina has been traditionally male dominated but recently there have been a growing number of female wine producers that are also gaining international recognition. Names such as Susana Balbo (Dominio del Plata) and Andrea Marchiori (Vina Cobos) that are becoming famous for their expertise. What message do you want to give to women who desire to gain title and respect in this industry?

The initial step has already been taken. At our winery, we have women in wine making and commercial roles. Infact I would like to believe that we have more women than men in our team now, which was not the case way back in 1995. It is important to focus on the ability rather than his/her gender. It is also important to be a mentor to a younger man, so then they will be a good mentor to other women.  That is the only way that gender equality and respect can be earned and given. I have two sons and a daughter and if I mentor my sons and daughter equally, they will look forward to being more relaxed about gender when they grow up and focus more on how to do let the wine do the talking….(smiles)

Sumilier: Rivals in the industry that you can identify with and whose work have impressed you.

Michel Rolland and his venture of bringing 6 wine makers together choosing Mendoza as a region for their Clos de los Siete Project, Achaval Ferrer. And the many foreign investors that have been investing pushing the economy forward. I am proud that our country is making it commercially worthwhile for projects that attract foreign investment.

Sumilier: You are playing multiple roles daily – a doctor, a vintner, a daughter, also a full-time mother of 3 kids and wife. How are you able to balance all these?

Laura C: My husband has an easy answer to this, he always says “Laura does this by neglecting her husband”. (laughing at this) He is probably right but I do have a philosophy for this ie the Power of the B+. I realised that in order to do some things well, I will have to do other things less well as I cannot be everywhere all the time. It is better to be a tennis player than not play at all. I don’t have to excel at everything. I have 3 kids and sometimes I am late at picking them up but what is most important is to make them feel loved which is what I give priority to. And for that I don’t need to be always on time. If I am not on time, they have to learn to borrow a phone and be independent and develop a sense of responsibility to be able to take public transport. It will actually help them learn the art of living the real world. So choose what you think is truly important. Certain other things will have to be given a bit less importance and I am fine with that…as long as I have prioritised what is important to me.