I’ve always been a fan of the wines from Bodega Catena Zapata in Argentina for a long time. I was first introduced to their wines when I was part of the South World Wine Society in Vancouver. I did not know much about Argentina or Malbec, but I learned a lot as part of the Society. So it was a great honour for me to meet Dr. Laura Catena, managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata, founder of her own winery, Luca Winery in Mendoza, author, and as well a practicing part-time physician of Emergency Medicine in San Francisco.
My Interview with Laura Catena
Laura: My job is as an emergency doctor and I meet people and hear their stories. I am interested in meeting you. I want to know what you are interested in and what people who read your writing are interested in. Do you think people are interested in the descriptions of wine or about the family making the wine?
Karl: I always like to tell a story. I will give people the background on how the winery came about. Some of their history. Why did they choose certain grapes. And if they do something special like biodynamic or llamas in their vineyard.
We just purchased some llamas. The vineyards where our pyramid winery needs to be replanted. It was planted in the early 1980s and needs replacement. We tried to plant those vineyards with Merlot as Malbec did well there and they are both Bordeaux varieties. It did not do well.
Merlot really likes clay soils.
We have some clay. We planted good Merlot clones but it did not work so we pulled out the Merlot and left the vineyard field fallow for a while and now grass is growing everywhere, so we put the llamas in there to eat the grass. They are better than any lawnmower.
It is interesting that being a doctor you take calculated risks all the time. You try to minimize risk. If your father Nicolas had not planted vineyards at a high elevation and the winery turned over to you, would you have tried it, if nobody else tried it before?
I’m a pretty conservative person to risk-taking, being a doctor. I don’t like taking unnecessary risks with my patients. But working with my father for 25 years I think the sense of discovery and finding new places grew on me; actually we planted vineyards in Salta and Patagonia. I have a Pinot Noir project in Argentina when everyone said no to growing Pinot Noir. I planted some at high altitude that is phenomenal. I think it is some of the best Pinot Noir in the world. I think through medicine I came with a conservative stance, but working with my father kind of turned me take more risk.
It is always good to take a little bit of risk sometimes.
I think if I went straight from medicine I probably wouldn’t have planted it, but today I would.
What made you think about planting Pinot Noir? When I think of Argentina I don’t think of Pinot Noir.
The truth is before I worked for my father when I was going to be a doctor and just drinking the family wine, I used to go to France with him as a translator. I studied French in high school and lived in France, but not for wine. I was interested in art, literature, and modern painters. I used to go to Paris a lot. My father, when he was going to France, would wait for my summer vacation from medical school. He would ask me to go with him as he didn’t speak French. The reality was that most French people spoke English.
Some French people want you to try to speak French to them and they hold back on their English. I do enjoy speaking French when I go to France.
Yes. I went to France with my father as a translator with no intention of working with him, but I started to fall in love with wine. The first Pinot Noir we planted was in the early 1990s and I started to work with him in 1995. And the main reason we planted is that my dad and I liked to drink Burgundian Pinot Noir.
My dad and I together said, “let’s try it”. I wasn’t working with him but we would talk as we both loved wine. For me it was a hobby and for him a job. It is great when your hobby turns into your job. It happened to me and I think it happens to a lot of people in wine. Most people don’t start out working in wine. I should have started in wine and I didn’t. Part of my journey has been enriched as I came to it from a love for it, not imposed on me because I am from a wine family.
Lots of people I have talked to like Bernard Designeur from the Rhone Valley was from a wine family, he left to become a lawyer and he slowly came back, and now is a big biodynamic winemaker.
The thing I always say to people is that the job when you are young is to rebel. If you don’t there is something wrong with you. I have teenagers; other people complain about their kids and I say if they are not rebelling then that is wrong. Your kids should want to do something else, and that is what my father believes. I love being a doctor; it has been a great journey. I asked my dad “why didn’t you tell me how much fun it was to make wine?”. He said that if I tried to convince you, you would not be working with me today. So there you go.
I love Pinot Noir. Was there a certain wine you tried in Burgundy that got you thinking about Pinot Noir?
What I love about Pinot Noir is that there is a different flavour for a different place and the elegance that it draws. Growing Pinot Noir started with someone telling me that you can’t make great Pinot Noir in Argentina. The thing that motivates me the most is if someone tells me that you can’t do it. Many of the good things that I did in life were prompted by someone telling me that I can’t do it.
It took us a long time. We planted Pinot Noir in the early to mid-1990s. At first young Pinot Noir is very productive. We planted many different clones and found the ones that did the best. 777 or Pommard clones do well in France but are too high yielding in Argentina as we have too much sun and not enough water. So we had to study the plant material, and how to farm it, and after 20 years we are now making some incredible Pinot Noir. It tastes different in different areas.
Another interesting thing about Pinot Noir is that it has helped us with Malbec. When people in Argentina first started making serious Malbec the made it like you make Cabernet Sauvignon with long maceration, making it hyper-concentrated, but actually Malbec has delicate aromas, acidity, and texture and you have to treat it more like Pinot Noir. You want to do a cold fermentation, and you can also do lots of battonage like you do with Pinot Noir because Malbec has very concentrated tannins and lots of polyphenols but are smooth.
I said that there is a different taste of Pinot Noir for every place, but we were not sure if Malbec could have a taste for a place as dramatic as Pinot. From what we saw in Burgundy we were inspired to try micro-vinification. We published the first study of a variety across continents, where we studied Malbec in different soils and altitudes in Argentina and in California. After the study, which we did with UC Davis, you could give a bottle of Malbec to the UC Davis scientists and they could test the sensory and chemistry of the wine and tell us where it is from. So Malbec can be like Pinot Noir in that it tastes different depending on where it is made.
I did a similar study for BC Pinot Noir and Riesling (BC Pinot Noir Review). I found out which vineyard the grapes came from, made tasting notes for each wine and tagged each wine on a map in a GIS (Geographic Information System), brought in soils data, and did an overlay analysis looking at how latitude and soil type related to wine aromas and flavours. I determined that there is a correlation between soil types to flavours and aromas, for both types of grapes, as well as a relationship in similar aromas and flavours when you go from the south to the north. I geek out on studies like that.
We are doing another study where we take two parcels and plant the same genetic plants. One parcel has a shallow soil with calcareous materials and the other is a deep more sandy soil. Both are at the same altitude. We study yields, aromas and flavours, and we determined that there are totally different flavours.
Apparently there are not many studies like this over several years that are well controlled. The problem with vinicultural studies is that the climate of the year is such an important variable that you don’t ever get good control. You can try to compare two different soils but the vintage variability can be bigger than the difference between the soils. That is a problem for me.
You are managing the entire winery. It is your vision. How do you like the wines to be? Do you make wine you like, or the public, or the critics like?
Basically this is the luxury of a family winery. You can do whatever you want, but the problem is if you can’t sell it then you can’t pay salaries or plant new vineyards. So you have to be able to sell the wines as well. What I have found is that I can sell wines better that I like to drink. If I don’t like a wine, I can’t sell it. We plant vineyards in places that we think are going to make the style of wine we like which is elegant and with natural acidity. We make some blends and some single vineyards, like the Pinot Noir story.
I do not look at market data and say we need to have a $25 red wine from Cabernet Sauvignon. Never. Basically from my land, I make good wine and then I think how to sell it. Do I blend it, or do I sell it as a single vineyard? How much to charge for it? I like to provide double the quality of my competitors. So if I sell it for $20 it should taste like a $40 wine. That is my dream.
I have known about your wines for a long time. I used to be President and Cellar Master of the South World Wine Society (SWWS). I was always buying your wines at VanWineFest. It was an interesting time. We could compare Syrah from Chile, Argentina, and South Africa for example. It was always so interesting to see the differences.
About 15 years ago the SWWS did a Malbec tasting when Malbec was starting to be a hot grape. We had about 10 different wines and they were all a distinct purple colour. Whenever someone poured me a glass of wine and I saw that purple hue I knew immediately. Last year I was at an event, and Malbec was being poured. I noted that the specific purple hue was not there anymore. I asked a person from Argentina about it but he did not have an answer.
I would suspect that what happened is that you had a slightly older wine. A young Malbec will always have a violet colour. The one thing from Argentina is that a lot of production was from eastern warmer Mendoza region in the past. Now the wines are coming from the Uco Valley of higher quality. (Karl: so it could also be a higher quality Malbec.).
Are you doing anything in your vineyards with climate change happening? Are there things happening with the climate so you have to make some accommodations in the vineyard?
The interesting thing is what we did this in Argentina in the past and this can be a model for climate change the rest of the world. My father in the 90s planted at high altitude. I went to France with my dad once and we met Jacques Lurton. We brought a bottle of Cabernet from a traditional area in Bordeaux to drink with him. He said that the wine tasted like a nice Cab from the Languedoc. I didn’t know much about wine so the comment did not mean anything, but my dad was dead serious and upset about it afterward. He said to me that if a Bordeaux person says a Bordeaux wine tastes like it is from the Languedoc that is awful (Karl: the quality of Languedoc wines has since improved. There were many very good Languedoc wines at VanWineFest 2020). When we went back to Argentina my dad said we had to plant in cool climate places either south or toward the mountains. We dealt with climate and finding cooler climate 30 years ago. Going higher altitude is one way to get a cooler climate. So our experience on how we experimented and studied the soils and grapes is something that other people can use to combat climate change.
One thing about Argentinean Malbec is that the skins are thicker there compared to Bordeaux. Are you noticing that the Pinot Noir skins are also getting thicker?
Basically Malbec skins are thicker over 4000 ft elevation as the grape is protecting its skin. I have not studied it yet for Pinot Noir. It would be interesting to know. We have Pinot Noir planted in cool climate areas at high altitude with lots of sun. A good question we should answer.
Who are worse patients, grapes or people?
There is no such thing as a bad grape or patient. Maybe grapes. I love all my patients. I love people with all their flaws. When I am a doctor I feel like I am serving people. I am there to help whatever they are going through. Grapes are kind of annoying when you have a bad year and they rot, or the yields are way down due to frost. So if I had to choose, I’d drink wine but I choose people. People are better behaved.
People can also answer you back. How do you feel? Where does it hurt?
The life of a vineyard owner is tough. Every vintage you get whatever the climate dictates. And you can’t control it. People you can help. You can give them medication and save them. With grapes sometimes you can’t.
If you could have a gigantic billboard on the side of the road what would it say?
It would say “Come visit us in Mendoza Argentina” because I think the way people understand wine is to visit the region. And that is one of the greatest disadvantages for Argentina compared to Italy and France as people visit those places more often, they fall in love with the place and the wines. If people can come to Argentina it will be good for Argentinean wines.
It’s on my bucket list. Maybe I can help you study Pinot Noir skin thickness? Thank you for your time.