A Glass Of Wine With Laura Catena

  • By Somm360
  • 01 Apr 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Laura Catena - Credit : Courtesy of Bodega Catena Zapata

Somm360 sits down with winemaker Laura Catena to discuss high altitude winemaking.

Somm360: First things first, Laura… Would you please define high altitude viticulture with regards to what that means in Argentina?

Laura Catena: I would define high altitude as vineyards above 3,000 feet (915m) elevation in Mendoza, Argentina. That is where we start seeing significant reductions in temperature. It is important to also take latitude into consideration. So for example, vineyards in Salta, at a much more northern latitude are at higher altitudes (otherwise it would be too warm) and in Patagonia, down south, the vineyards are at much lower altitudes.

Somm360: What first drew your father to these extreme limits of vine cultivation? As that is pretty extreme by any standards!

LC: My father realized that in order to make concentrated wines with moderate alcohols and optimal natural acidity he needed to plant in cooler climates. I once accompanied my father on a trip to Bordeaux where we met with our friend Jacques Lurton (it was in the late 1980’s). My father brought a Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the traditional areas (below 3,000 feet [915m] elevation) and poured it for Jacques; Jacques smiled and said “it reminds me of a nice Cabernet from the Languedoc”.  Whatever you might think of the Languedoc today, back then this was a sort of insult. I only realized this when we got back to the hotel and my father explained.  

Jacques tells me to this day that I should stop telling this story because it makes him look rude, but I answer: with this simple comment you changed the trajectory of Argentine wine. My father, back from France, asked his team to “find the cool climate limit for vine cultivation in Mendoza.” And that is how he ended up planting in Gualtallary, at 5,000 feet (1,524m) elevation in the Uco Valley, where even our own viticulturist said that wine grapes would not ripen because it was too cold; but they did!

So what drew my father to high altitude was “to make Argentine wines that could stand with the best of the world because of their singularity, elegance, and capacity to age."

Somm360: What do you believe altitude brings to what is actually in the glass?

LC: Cooler climate brings natural acidity and more polyphenols. Because of the intense sunlight, the grapes produce more polyphenols and make the grape skins thicker (as a protection for the seeds from the sun). The wines are very concentrated. Because of the cool, dry, sunny climate, hang-time (the time from veraison to harvest) is very long, allowing tannins to polymerize. The results are very rich, aromatic wines, with big and smooth tannins. Also, the mountain soils are filled with gravel and limestone, allowing for very good drainage. High yields are impossible. And this allows us to make very concentrated wines.

Somm360: From my understanding the terroir of these vineyard sites is drastically different from those down below? How do the soil compositions differ?

LC: As the glaciers melt or rivers end, they lose force, usually we have bigger stones at the highest altitudes, then sand and loam and the smaller particled clay in the lower altitudes. At other times, two alluvial cones cross with each other and we get different soil textures. We also have some volcanic soil components from the Andean volcanoes. In conclusion, we invite you to come to Argentina to see for yourself.

Somm360: And of course, the sunlight intensity, what kind of differences do you see?

LC: At 4,000 feet (1,220m) elevation and above we start seeing the thickening of grape skins. This is a sort of protective action from the plants to shield the seeds from the intense sunlight.  The wines we make from these high altitude sites tend to have very deep colour and lots of tannins.

Somm360: What are the greatest challenges that one faces farming at such great heights, viticultural hazards and the like?

LC: Because of the nearby mountains, humid air goes up and if it freezes up in the atmosphere we can get hail. There is also the risk of frost, to which Malbec is particularly susceptible, which is typical of our continental mountain climate.

Somm360: As well as your signature Malbec, what other varieties do you grow at altitude? I’m guessing that certain grape varieties fare better than others in such conditions? Have you discovered varieties that simply DO NOT thrive at 1,450 m above sea level? Are there particular clones you have isolated for such purposes?

LC: Chardonnay likes the high altitude cool climate. Cabernet Franc likes the gravelly soils, cool climate and sun. Also Bonarda (which is Charbonneau de Savoie), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir (Pinot only at the highest altitudes) do well in our cool, high altitude climates.

Somm360: So what size of diurnal shifts are we speaking about here?

LC: 12 - 20 degrees.

Somm360: Wouldn’t all of these factors lead to some uneven ripening in these plots?

LC: Yes, both the Massale selections of Malbec which are very diverse, and the various origins of the soils (from rivers and glaciers melting) can cause some uneven ripening. We find that a little uneven ripening actually adds complexity to the wine. This is why we have hundreds of “parcelas” within our vineyards, so that we can harvest each “parcela” separately and at its optimal time.

Somm360: What kind of yields are we talking about here? (In comparison with “normal” Argentinian vineyards )

LC: The yields at Adrianna are at 1.5 - 3 tons per acre. Very low.

Somm360: So how old are the vines in these vineyards at this point in time?

LC: Between 27 and 22 years old.

Somm360: Please explain the story behind the famed “Mundus Bacillus Terrae” parcel?

LC: Our soils are very poor in organic material, which means low yields and high concentration. We wondered: are the soils so poor because of the low amount of water and gravel/limestone that we have few microbes? So we studied the microbial footprint in this parcel, and found great microbial diversity and even a microbe that had never been described before in the world which we sent to a registry in Switzerland.

Some of the microbes we found are Rhizobacteria, which help the roots absorb nutrients and resist drought. The wine is named in honor of these microbes and means “Elegant (Mundus) microbes (Bacillus) terrae (of the earth).  The microbes are the real inhabitant of this land with the vines and the rest of the ecosystem. We couldn’t make wine without them!

Somm360: And do you have any room to expand in the future? What with the global heating can you see vignerons scaling new heights?

LC:  In Mendoza, we moved to cooler climates at higher altitudes 25 years ago. So temperature is not as big of an issue, at least not for now; plus warming is happening faster in the northern hemisphere.  The bigger issue for us is the reduction in water availability because there is less snow in the Andean Glaciers.  We are using drip irrigation in all our vineyards and constantly studying ways to save and recycle water.

Somm360: Thank you so much for your time, Laura! It is most appreciated.

Laura Catena - Credit : Courtesy of Bodega Catena Zapata