Owner, Bodega Catena Zapata
Forty years ago and long before Malbec became a household name among wine lovers, an Argentine economist and winery owner working as a guest professor at the University of California, Berkeley, made a bet with himself and his homeland: that his native Mendoza, if it followed a path similar to the one Napa Valley started on during the 1960s, could produce world-class wines with consumer demand and prices to match.
It was a bold gamble for Dr. Nicolás Catena Zapata, whose Italian-born immigrant grandfather founded the family’s original Argentine wine company in 1902. Argentinean wine in the early 1980s was largely a domestic product. Furthermore, Argentina’s wines were not the gems they are today, nor was there a crop of young Argentines champing at the bit to make winemaking a career.
Most ominous for the prospects of Catena’s gambit, the idea of elevating varietal Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec into wines that could be compared to the best bottlings from the Old and New Worlds was as foreign as baseball in Buenos Aires.
None of that deterred Catena. Upon returning to Argentina from California in 1983, he was convinced that improved viticulture emphasizing low yields and grapes grown at high altitudes, combined with investments in modern winemaking equipment and talent could make celebrated wines that would lead the nation’s wine industry onto the world stage. That conviction drove what would later be named Bodega Catena Zapata and other committed Mendoza wineries.
“When I got back from California, my quest was to make varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay at a quality level that would allow us to compete internationally,” says Catena. “Our vineyards with red grapes were primarily planted with Malbec, but our experience making premium Malbec hadn’t been good. The wines were fruitless, heavily oxidized and made in the old Italian style where wine sat for three or four years in big barrels made from old oak.
“In California, I learned about controlling yields to maximize quality,” he says. “Thus, we began to drastically modify our pruning, fertilization and irrigation practices for Malbec, and we planted Cabernet and Chardonnay imported from California and France. In the winery, we started a sanitary practice that was unknown in Mendoza. We replaced old fermenters with small temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. We copied the extraction process used in California. All of this was novel at the time.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Argentina now ranks as the fifth-largest wine producer in the world, while domestic and international investment in the country’s wine has skyrocketed over the past quarter century. Malbec is now quasi synonymous with Argentinean wine, while several of Bodega Catena Zapata’s top wines, including Malbec Argentino and a Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend named after the visionary Catena himself, are universally praised.
Now 82 and widely considered the godfather of modern Argentinean wine, Catena remains keenly involved in the ongoings at Bodega Catena Zapata and affiliated brands including Bodega Escorihuela, Bodega Rutini and Bodega Caro, a joint venture founded in 1998 with Baron Eric de Rothschild of Château Lafite Rothschild (the “ca” representing Catena and the “ro” Rothschild).
Not one to retire in the traditional sense, Catena lives near the vines with his wife of 57 years, Elena. Their three children—Ernesto, Laura and Adrianna—represent the fourth generation of Catenas to work in wine, with grandkids on the way.
“Today, the vineyards that produce wines of renown are all situated above 1,200 meters, while the old zones have mostly been replanted based on a better understanding of terroir,” he says. “I am proud to have contributed to this phenomenon in our country.”