Laura Catena: the quest to uncover Argentina’s true winemaking potential

The Buyer, by Richard Siddle, April 24, 2017
Laura Catena
Laura Catena has a gift. The gift to make in-depth talk of soil microbes and rock formations captivating. She really does have a unique way of seeing the world of word. A view gleaned from her training in medicine as a doctor, a discipline that has driven her to take up the family mantle to raise the bar for Argentinian wine, and most of all understand where it has come from so it can set the right course of action for the future.

Bodega Catena Zapata is one of Argentina’s biggest and most important wine producers. It is also at the forefront of the research and analysis that it hopes will help it make even greater wines in the future. Imagine being on the wine equivalent of a quiz show and having to name Argentina’s most influential producer. If you came up with Catena you would like to think you were in a good chance of walking away with the main prize.

Bodega Catena Zapata, to give it its full title, first started making wine back in 1902, but it was not until the arrival of the third generation and Nicolás Catena Zapata at the head of the company that its real influence on the world of wine was recognised. In fact Jancis Robinson MW says he is responsible for “putting Argentinean wines on the world map”. As well as make award winning, agenda setting wines, the Catenas have been particularly influential in driving the Argentinian wine industry to look more intensely at the kinds of wines it is producing and most particularly from where.

Speak to any Argentinian producer today and they will talk about the importance of site specific wines, made from particular vines, in certain plots at varying degrees of altitude. In fact it can get quite bamboozling when producers rattle off the names of the latest micro plot of land in a sub-sub-region far removed from the large generic regions such as Mendoza, La Rioja or Salta that we all learnt from our WSET days.

Nicolás Catena Zapata might have lead the way, but his work has been more than carried on by his daughter Dr Laura Catena, who is now managing director of the business. She has even set up a standalone Catena Institute of Wine dedicated to analysing Argentina’s land, topography, agriculture and soils all in a bid to identify ways to make better more site specific wines in different parts of Argentina. It might not have come up with the quilt network of vineyards and plots that Burgundy has, but it is on course to come up with an equivalent of its own.

Dr. Catena

Talking to Laura Catena truly is a fascinating experience. She looks at wine and winemaking through a completely different perspective. Through the eyes and experience of training as a qualified doctor. Vines may not have a blood supply system, but for Catena looking at how they work in the equivalent way of understanding the physiological make-up of a human body is the way to really discover what potential they have.

For her that means looking at the influence of the location, the soils, the temperature, rainfall, sunlight hours and, of course, the height and direction of the vineyard. During her studies she also spent some time learning plant biology which combined with her medical skills gives her a unique background when looking at vines and wines.

“I love vines. As a child I used to plant pine trees and watch them grow. You have to be so patient. But no vine is the same. You have to help them tell their story,” she explains. “The human element is key.” It is why so much of the Catena’s research is down to microbe level and the influence they have on the soils and vines. “We want to be able to protect and understand what those microbes do. It is difficult.”

She adds: “Why do I need to know this? Well if you don’t know what you are preserving, how can you even start to try. It is like medicine. To know which medicine to give to a patient you have to know what how their body is working.”

Quest for discovery

So her quest to make quality wines meant searching out the best sites. A key guiding light was French producer, Jacques Lurton, who was her “inspiration” to look for cool climate sites to truly understand the soils and terroir. It meant going as high as 4,600 sq ft before finding an area of land that the Catenas felt could tick all the boxes. Not that anyone had thought you could grow vines or grapes there before. “I went looking for cool climates and found so much more,” she says.

The result is the Adrianna Vineyard, situated in Gualtallary in the Uco Valley, which encapsulates the Catena’s philosophy and values towards winemaking are. Described by some as South America’s Grand Cru vineyard, the whole area has been analysed to determine the exact sites where certain vines will perform best by assessing virtually every rock, and insect that moves in the area.

“It is so high up that it was thought you could not grow grapes there. But what we discovered is there is so many mini terroirs just in the one place,” she says. The Catenas are certainly patient. It took some 15 years of farming the area for them to decide what types of vine and wine could be grown and made there.

Meticulous research

Catena and her team are involved in on-going studies analysing different grape varieties and then how they perform against different types of soils and rocks. What influence do the microbes in the soil and in the air and water have on the vines? There are some 125 different vine cuttings involved in various studies.

It has, for example, identified and separated out 11 lots at the Adrianna Vineyard from which different types of wine are made. Like its River Stones Malbec which comes from a 2.6 hectare site within Lot 6 made up of oval white stones on an ancient riverbed. Ideal for drainage and absorbing extreme temperatures, but they also act like ice cubes on a cold night. All helping to produce a more aromatic, rich and elegant Malbec. This compares to the Fortuna Terrae Malbec, a 5 hectare site also within Lot 6 which has deep loamy soils, native grasses which produce a wine with good acidity and floral aromas.

Catena is particularly interested in developing and understanding cool climate wines. “I want to understand Argentina’s cool climate wines, not cool climate wines from anywhere.” It also means the Catenas can control the quality and DNA if you like of the vines it is using. “Each of our vineyards have vines from our own cuttings,” she explains.

It means it can to a large degree ensure its wines have at the right level of elegance where the focus is more on aromas than the tannins.

Changing lives and vines

Such is Laura Catena’s influence on Argentinian wine it is hard to imagine the wine industry nearly lost her completely to medicine. When she was studying and leaving college she says she was determined to do a “job to help people”. She certainly did not see herself following a career in wine.

But it is not surprising considering her father’s standing that she was soon inspired to join the family business. She remembers how the time they spent as a family in California, when her father was teaching at Berkeley University, gave him all the motivation to come back and show the world that Argentina could also make quality wine.

Her own motivation came after being invited to attend a Wine Spectator event in New York in 1995 and realising how far behind Argentinian wine was compared to a lot of the world. “I realised we had so much more to do to put Argentina on the map.”

Argentina and the Catenas have come an enormous way over the last 15 years, but Laura Catena believes it is only really starting to discover its true potential. She is, for example, embarking on a five year project to analyse two styles of Malbec grown next door to each other, but on different soils. For one Malbec they will leave everything to nature, the other will be machine and technology driven.

“Some of it is a mystery and will remain a mystery. But I think we owe it to our vineyards to try and understand them the best we can.” Considering her focus on terroir it is not surprising to hear she does not think about a typical consumer when making her wine. “I make my wines and hope people will like it. But I also want to make wines that my children can enjoy with me when I am 70 years of age.” It’s a simple philosophy that seems to be working so far.