Nicolas Catena has scaled mountains to make seriously good wine. There were literal mountains in the form of the Andes, where the third-generation Argentine producer discovered that malbec, his country's signature red grape, could shine at a high altitude. And there was a formidable figurative obstacle: what Catena describes as the complacent business culture engendered by decades of political and economic instability.
"We never had that culture of good administration in terms of government, in terms of companies," he told me recently on another kind of summit – Canoe restaurant on the TD Bank Tower's 54th floor in Toronto – during his first visit to Canada, one of Argentina's key export markets. "When I started producing wine for international markets, my inspiration was the Americans, the Californians, to produce something that could compete with the best in the world."
He succeeded in that pursuit.
Inspiration first struck in 1982 while Catena, an economist by training, was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He and wife Elena had stopped for a tasting at the iconic Napa Valley winery of Robert Mondavi, who, like Catena, traced his family roots to the central Marche region of Italy. The rich cabernets and fresh fumé blancs were revelations.
At the time, Argentine wine enjoyed about as much global prestige as Canadian; mainly it was plonk, sold to bulk bottlers to slake the unexacting domestic thirst. Catena returned home to his family estate, Bodegas Catena Zapata, with a mission: reduce crop yields to improve flavour concentration, cellar the liquid in quality French-oak barrels and select the best vine clones for each microclimate.
Eventually aided by daughter Laura, a Harvard biology graduate and San Francisco emergency-room physician who now also acts as export director, Catena concluded that the way forward for Argentina rested less in California-style chardonnays and cabernets and more in malbec, a gutsy and deeply coloured red grape with a split personality. At lower, valleyfloor elevations it yields pleasantly juicy, grapey quaffers. At much higher elevations of between 1,200 and 1,500 metres on the foothills of the Mendoza region – among the world's highest vineyards – the cooler temperatures and more intense sunlight yields more concentrated yet smoother and more floral, complex malbecs, with little trace of, say, cabernet-style tannic bitterness.
Connoisseurs began to agree, especially in the mid-1990s. That's when Catena took the audacious step of launching a malbec for a then-ridiculously high $20, more than the $15 he was charging for his premium cabernet sauvignon and significantly more than his $13 chardonnay.
Malbec had, in fairness, already begun to pave modest inroads in foreign markets, Canada especially, thanks to the variety's easy ability to deliver cheap-and-cheerful pleasure from lower-altitude sites. "You need to be very stupid to make a bad malbec," Catena, 74, said. But thanks in great part to his foresight and ambition, fellow Argentine producers also began to literally move, and figuratively aim, higher, with some prices topping the $100 mark. Catena's iconic winery building, designed to evoke a Mayan temple, also has come to symbolize the rising quality of the national industry.
A couple of Catena's superluxury reds are being released today in Ontario Vintages stores, including the Alta malbec, which leads my assorted notes below. Other premium Catena wines can be found across the country.
Catena Alta Malbec 2011 (Argentina)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Not your poor cousin's cheap-and-cheerful malbec, this comes across with grace as well as fruity intensity. Blueberry jam and plum mingle with peppery spice, vanilla and dark chocolate along with a whisper of smoky bacon. Chewy and dense, it drinks beautifully now but could reward with up to 10 years in the cellar. It would be great for highly charred beef or lamb, or for sweet barbecued pork ribs. $49.99 in B.C., $52.79 in Nova Scotia.
Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Argentina's advantage on world markets, particularly in sugar-loving North America, is evident here. Though technically dry, the fruit is suggestively very sweet, finding attractive harmony in hints of tobacco, charred wood and spices. There's a graceful floral overtone about it, too. Think steak. $21.99 in B.C., $22.99 in Nova Scotia.
Catena Chardonnay 2013 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Catena winemaker Alejandro Vigil crafts harmonious chardonnays in addition to all his fine malbecs and cabernets. This is an orchard-fruit medley with perfectly tuned acidity to match the ripeness and satisfying mid-palate weight. Deftly oaked, it shows well-integrated notes of vanilla, toast and butter. It's great for lobster or grilled salmon. Various prices in Alberta, $19.99 in Nova Scotia.
Catena Malbec 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
A textbook case of what the world has come to love about Argentine malbec. This is ripe, happy fruit with a note from the candy store. I picture blueberries with melted wine gums and a dusting of allspice and herbs. More concentrated than its bargain-priced kin, it shows ripe, integrated tannins. Try it with barbecued ribs or spicy sausages. $22.99 in B.C., $22.99 in Saskatchewan, $21.95 in Quebec, $22.99 in New Brunswick, $22.99 in Nova Scotia, $22.99 in Newfoundland., $22.95 in PEI.
Quails' Gate Chardonnay 2012 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.99 in B.C.
Full-bodied and smartly balanced, this gem from Quails' Gate combines delectable peach and tropical fruit with butter and toasty oak, set against juicy acidity. It's excellent for weighty fish dishes. Various prices in Alberta, $19.99 in Manitoba, $21.95 in Ontario.
Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2012 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $44.95
Full-bodied and well-structured, Burrowing Owl's high-end cabernet franc is very dry and hints at maraschino cherry and plum, supported by a pleasantly chalky texture and notes of bell pepper and spice. It would be lovely for rare lamb or steak. $33 in B.C. www.bovwine.ca.
Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
It's off-dry, yet there's no reason to fear the hint of sweetness here even if you're a dry-wine diehard. The luscious tinned-fruit core is deftly balanced by lime and green-apple acidity. This is expertly made riesling. It's perfect for many pork dishes, with cheeses or with dishes involving spicy heat. www.henryofpelham.com.
Strewn Gewurztraminer 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Almost off-dry, this fleshy, soft, aromatic white comes across with classic gewurztraminer notes of lychee and ginger along with tropical fruit and red apple. This is good-value white. Available in Ontario. www.strewnwinery.com.