In addition to her role as a Harvard and Stanford educated emergency room physician, Dr. Laura Catena serves as Managing Director of her family’s Argentine winery Catena Zapata. Straddling the worlds of medicine and viticulture comes naturally to the energetic and always curious Catena, who splits her time between San Francisco, where she currently volunteers as a Department of Public Health physician for populations in need while raising her three children, and Mendoza, where her family winery produces high-altitude, world-class wines that rival Europe’s greatest grand crus.
What was the impetus for joining the family business and did your father play a role in influencing this decision?
I had not originally intended to follow in my father’s footsteps, and he played his cards right by letting me choose my path. After graduating from Harvard University, and then with a Medical degree from Stanford, I decided to specialize in Emergency Medicine. The turning point came in the 1990s when I started accompanying my father to international wine events in the U.S. and Europe. A trip to France introduced me to some of the great winemaking families and wines of Bordeaux. My enthusiasm for the family wine business grew. I was aware of the perceived industry view at the time – that Argentina did not have the right terroir to produce great wines. Yet, inspired and encouraged by my father’s ambition and his decades of winemaking research, I couldn’t resist joining his mission.
Tell us about your quest to create South America’s first grand cru with Catena Zapata’s Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend, Nicolás Catena Zapata. When were you first inspired to produce this wine that honors your father?
My father grew up the son of a wine family, working the winery and vineyards in a small village in Argentina. His grandfather, Nicola Catena, had immigrated to Mendoza, Argentina, with the dream of making his own wine. My father later studied at Columbia University and was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. Inspired by the 1978 Judgment of Paris where Californians challenged the French Grands Crus and won, my father, asked himself: “If the Californians can do it, why not me in Argentina?”
He started a winemaking revolution in Argentina which resulted in the rebirth of Malbec and in the discovery of distinctive high-altitude terroirs in the elevated foothills of the Andes mountains. I started working with my father in 1995 after finishing medical school at Stanford and a residency in Emergency Medicine at Harbor-UCLA.
In 1995 Catena Zapata was invited to the New York Wine Experience, an exclusive tasting event where no other South American winery had been invited before. I attended on my father’s behalf – and people would walk by, see where our wines were from, and keep on walking because they didn’t know anything about Argentine wine. I realized that elevating the perception of Argentine wine among serious wine lovers was a lot harder than I had thought. This was the moment where I said to myself, “If I don’t help my dad, he’s not going to make it. Argentina isn’t going to make it.” So, I committed to joining my father and his dream of producing grand cru-level wines in Argentina.
The Nicolás Catena Zapata is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend. My father really loves this blend which is so distinctive from Argentina, because although Malbec used to be widely planted in Bordeaux, France, it is a forgotten grape over there. The blend makes a wine of character and power that can age but also has elegance and incredibly smooth tannins. Malbec was used in Bordeaux where it was even more widely planted than Cabernet Sauvignon in the 19th Century, because of its smooth tannins and intense dark color, and fruit aromas. This is my father’s favorite wine and he chooses the blend every year by tasting each and every barrel and component. That is why the wine carries his name.
What are the conditions that lend a wine like Nicolás Catena Zapata its stature as a grand cru of South America?
Nicolás Catena Zapata is derived from the extreme high-altitude vineyards in the Andean foothills that my father pioneered when he was the first to plant in the Gualtallary district of the Uco Valley. Careful vineyard selection is followed by barrel selection. The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are sourced from old vines in the La Pirámide Vineyard, which surrounds the pyramid-shaped Catena Zapata winery, while the Malbec grapes are sourced from the Catena family’s Adrianna and Nicasia Vineyards. The Malbec vines, planted with Catena’s proprietary selections, are located at altitudes varying from 3,000 to 5,000 feet elevation. The soils in the La Pirámide Vineyard are predominantly clay, and the soils in the Adrianna and Nicasia Vineyards are limestone and gravel. My father correctly believed that a vineyard at this altitude and with these characteristics would produce wines that have power, texture, and richness unlike any other in Mendoza. This confluence of qualities is what I believe makes this wine a grand cru equivalent in South America: a true reflection of place and the very best of its kind.
The Malbec grape, for which Argentine wine is well-known, actually originated in Bordeaux. How did Malbec make its way to Argentina and why has it thrived so well in Argentine terroir?
Malbec, the variety that today represents Argentina in most people’s minds, was at one time only known as a French variety. Malbec had been famous throughout the Middle Ages as the favorite of Eleanor of Aquitaine. In Bordeaux, it was an important component of the blend until the late nineteenth century, when it lost favor to the earlier-ripening Merlot. Historical records show that Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon was the most important blend in Bordeaux during the 18th and early 19th centuries. By the late 1800s, Malbec, a variety that can be severely affected by spring frost, was mostly replaced by Merlot in Bordeaux. After the phylloxera problem of the 1870s, Malbec, which was highly susceptible to spring frost and had resulted in a series of small harvests, was mostly replaced by Merlot in Bordeaux.
The inspiration to blend these two French varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, was a comment by wine critic Hugh Johnson. Merlot has a softening effect on Cabernet Sauvignon, and Hugh Johnson suggested that Malbec could be used again for this purpose, but in an Argentine context. Malbec has thrived in the Argentine terroir due to its calcium carbonate alluvial soil; the cool mountain climate and sun blend the power of Cabernet Sauvignon with the beautiful fruit and velvety tannins of Malbec. My father’s initiative was led by a desire to make wines of high natural acidity and tannin, which are wines that age as well as fine Bordeaux.
The Catena Institute of Wine recently published a study proving the existence of terroir through the chemical analysis of wines. The term basically refers to the idea that the characteristics and environment surrounding a vineyard have a real impact on the wines it produces. Can you tell us more about the study and what its implications could be for fine wine lovers in the future?
In 1995, I handpicked a group of winemakers and viticulturalists to create what today is called the Catena Institute of Wine, and we began to study every aspect of Malbec and high-altitude viticulture and winemaking. This study reflects ten years of work that has yielded irrefutable proof, through detailed chemical analysis of finished wines, that terroir exists – a term that defines a certain wine aroma and flavor being attributed only to one specific place. We were able to identify small vineyard parcels that had such a specific and unique aroma and flavor that they could be identified every year, over three years, by their chemical fingerprint. A study such as this one has never been done in any country or about any other variety. One of the co-authors is Gregory Jones, a renowned climatologist from Oregon and one of the authors of the Noble Prize-winning Climate Change report.
For wine consumers, it means three things:
- Terroir exists: this study shows that terroir effect can be chemically characterized from finished wine, identifying its origin even to a specific parcela (aka cru) of less than one hectare, with up to 83% certainty.
- Vintage matters: this study is the first to compare four different levels of terroir across three vintages (2016, 2017, 2018) and identify vintage with 100% certainty.
- Cru: the study gives credence to what the Burgundian Cistercian monks called cru and what we call parcela in Argentina.
You are the author of two books, Vino Argentino and Gold in The Vineyards. Tell us about your journey from writing about your own homeland to writing about the world’s greatest vineyards, as well as what we can expect from your next book, Malbec Mon Amour.
I was born in Mendoza, Argentina, “la tierra del sol y del vino” – “the land of sun and wine” – the province where that country’s most famous wines are crafted. Like many people who grew up in Mendoza, wine has defined my life. I belong to the fourth generation of an Italian-Argentine winemaking family. Among the Catenas, a child’s entrance into the world of young adulthood was marked by a sip of red wine mixed with soda at my grandfather’s home. Vino Argentino is an insider’s travelogue to the Argentine wine country. It is part viticultural primer, part cultural exploration, part introduction to the Argentine lifestyle. It is about the ascent of the mighty Malbec grape into the stratosphere of world-class wines. Gold In The Vineyards, which has a lot of fun illustrations, began to take shape in Argentina during my childhood when my great-grandmother, Nicasia, taught me that adults could and should play. I haven’t stopped since. As a youth I was a tireless reader, then when I became a teenager and the illustrations disappeared in my adult books, it was a big disappointment. From there the inspiration was born to create an illustrated book like the ones I loved so much as a girl, this time about wine. The chapters of this book are made up of passions, personalities, and special pebbles of vineyards that have blessed a family with their gold. My latest illustrated book, Malbec Mon Amour, is a collaboration with our head winemaker, Alejandro Vigil, about the history of Malbec, its geology, and terroir. It will be published in Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
In 2017, you and your sister, Adrianna, who has a Ph.D. in History from Oxford University, created the first wine of which the label tells the history of a grape variety. Tell us more about the experience and significance of this wine?
We launched this wine, Malbec Argentino, in an unusual way: with an interactive play about the history of Malbec, as told through the voices of the four women on the label: Eleanor of Aquitaine, my great grandmother Ana Mosceta de Catena, a personification of Phylloxera, and the new generation of Catena women. This wine represents my family’s journey to produce unforgettable and age-worthy Argentine Malbec. It’s a blend of our historic Malbec vineyards, Adrianna and Nicasia.
As an emergency medicine physician, do you draw any interesting parallels between life in the ER and life in the vineyard or in the winery?
I chose emergency medicine because in this field you’re constantly thinking and being active, yet there’s also a huge space for extreme compassion. I have devised a system that has helped me cope with living life in the fast lane and to stay on track. It’s called “Accepting The B-.” If I’m in the hospital taking care of my patients, that’s an A+ activity. I can’t ever be distracted by something that’s going on at the winery or even something that’s going on with my children. But when I start getting stressed out about something the kids missed (like lunch for a field trip day) or something that I missed, I say, ‘Is it life or death?’ And if it’s not, just move on. As for life in the vineyard and the winery, I am grateful and humbled to work alongside people who share our vision and are passionate about all aspects of winemaking. My parents taught me to treat all the staff at the winery with the greatest respect, caring about their jobs, their families, and their health. The people who work at our family business are, in essence, an extension of our family.