The Elevation of Cabernet

You feel you are walking into a Mayan pyramid as you ascend the steps at Catena’s new winery in Mendoza, surrounded by vines, with a distant view of the Andes. Although the surrounding terrain feels fairly flat, the home vineyard is actually already at an elevation of 940 m, and other vineyards extend into the Andes at elevations up to 1500 m. The specialty here, as everywhere in Mendoza, is Malbec, but I was visiting to discuss Cabernet Sauvignon, for which Catena is a quality leader.

Catena Winery

Catena's new winery resembles a Mayan structure

It takes a certain nerve to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in your best vineyards when Malbec is so dominant, but Nicolás Catena told me, “I went to Napa and I fell in love with Cabernet Sauvignon. For me it was the best wine I have tasted in my life. I came to the conclusion that Cabernet Sauvignon was the king of the varieties.” Nicolás went on to explain that he made his first Cabernet Sauvignon to an international standard in 1990, but was devastated when a visiting consultant from Bordeaux said, “This tastes like a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc.” Nicolás decided that the only answer was to go to cooler areas: “So I took risks. One was that there would not be enough ripeness, it would be too cool. My technicians said I was crazy. Another danger is frost. My decision was based on assumptions that were not very precise. We planted Cabernet farther south and then went up in altitude. We decided – it took about six years – that Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler climates was better.”

Today Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in five vineyards at elevations from 800 m to 1480 m. A tasting of barrel samples from the 2011 vintages was a fascinating exercise in relating tannic structure to soil and climate. The wine from the lowest vineyard (Angélica at 800 m) was certainly the softest and least acidic. The wine from the highest vineyard (Adriana at 1480 m) was certainly the tightest, with mountain tannins hidden underneath the fruits but bringing more dryness to the finish. There wasn’t an exact correlation in between, but there was a perfect fit between my perception of total tannins and the measurement of polyphenols in each wine, which brings some comfort to the notion that numbers might mean something.

There are single vineyard Malbecs from these sources, but the Cabernets are always blended; this is due to market issues rather than any reflection on intrinsic quality or interest. Actually, most of these wines seemed likely to benefit from the blending process, although La Pirámide (940 m) seemed to be complete , and Nicasia (1180 m), the liveliest of the flight, seemed close to complete. The wines are blended for the top cuvée of the house, the eponymous Nicolás Catena Zapata, a blend with Malbec, and are also the source for the Catena Alta varietal Cabernet Sauvignon.

Catena also has a collaborative venture with Chateau Lafite in the form of Bodega Caro, whose lead wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Malbec; there is also a second wine with reverse proportions, called Amancaya. Winemaker Estela Perinetti says that the varietal proportions have been changing in Caro. “In cooler years we use more Cabernet. At the beginning the Malbec had more rustic tannins so we needed to use more Cabernet Sauvignon. Then we got better tannic structure with the Malbec and we reversed. Now we are going back to more Cabernet Sauvignon because it gives better aging.”

All the wines had a mark of elegance, but I am inclined to think that the blends with Malbec are more interesting than the monovarietal, because its  smooth, supple tannins nicely complement the more rigid structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. Quite a difference from the effect of blending with Merlot, which gives a fleshier mid palate.

Tasting notes

Mendoza, Nicolás Catena Zapata, 2003

This vintage had a more or less average varietal composition for the blend, with 72% Cabernet Sauvignon to 28% Malbec. It shows the superficial smoothness of Malbec, that somewhat glossy surface, which at the moment is the dominant influence. The firm underlying structure shows the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon, and with time the Cabernet will no doubt emerge more clearly to strengthen the black fruit impression. Slightly nutty on the finish with tertiary development not yet in sight. 13.9% 90 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cabernet Sauvignon, Catena Alta, 2003

Here you see the classic elegance of pure Cabernet Sauvignon with a nutty background to the black fruits and a touch of heat on the finish, which has some bite. The ripeness of the region makes this wine readily approachable at this age, but reflecting the character of the variety, it is a more linear than the Nicolas Catena Zapata blend of the same vintage. 14.2% 89 Drink to 2020.

Mendoza, Bodegas Caro 2002

Smooth black fruits are cut by subtle savory and even vaguely animal overtones. There’s a lovely balance, in terms of maturity perhaps equivalent to a fifteen year old Bordeaux. Smooth tannins give ripe, firm support to the fruits with a touch of nuts developing on the finish. You can see – if this is not too imaginative – the influence of Lafite. 13.8% 91 Drink to 2023.

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