Three years ago, in March 2020, I interviewed Dr. Laura Catena from the Bodega Catena Zapata Winery in Argentina at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. The next week, there was the COVID lockdown that went around the world. Luckily now that the Festival is back this year to its full program, Dr. Catena came back to the Festival, in part because the theme region this year was South America. I arranged an interview with Dr. Catena to find out what changed with their winery in Argentina as well as other changes around the wine world. If you would like to read my first interview, I have the link at the bottom of this article. Enjoy.
My Interview with Dr. Laura Catena
Karl: Tell me about your experiment with the llamas. You just purchased them when we last met at the Festival in 2020.
Laura: Actually, the llamas are great. You can’t leave them in a vineyard that has grapes in it because they will eat the grapes. We use them when there are no grapes in the vineyard so they eat the cover crops. You don’t have to worry about carbon emissions plus the llamas fertilize the soil.
We also like them for when we have a piece of land where the land is about to be planted with vines. We have all these grasses that grow really high on the land, and in order for the soil to get really active, the llamas basically cut the grasses and fertilize the soil. It’s a wonderful preparation for a new vineyard.
Karl: Are you still interested in making Pinot Noir wine? How are your Pinot Noir wines evolving?
Laura: I’m still most excited about Malbec because that is our variety. And there’s just so much diversity of Malbec. But Pinot Noir is, you know, a personal love of mine. You can’t grow it in as many places as Malbec.
Malbec can grow in warm climate, cool climate, and sandy soils. It does well everywhere. Pinot Noir is very particular. You could only grow it in poor soil, some limestone, not too many rocks on the surface, and has to be cool climate. I’m very excited about my winery, Nico. Argentina is a very special place because of the different altitudes. You have different varieties at different altitudes. Plus you have a variety of soils and climates really allows you to plant almost anything. But, you can’t try to plant too many different things.
Karl: Does the Malbec make a lot of clones like Pinot Noir?
Laura: Malbec has a great deal to make diversity in Argentina because nobody did clonal selections because the old way of finding the best grapes was to take cuttings and grafting. So Argentina has been basically making wine the way people made wine two thousand years ago, and you know, there are some things about staying in the past that are bad, but in this particular case, thanks to being an island in that we did not reduce our genetic diversity so we have some incredible genetic diversity for Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Bonarda and Torrontes, and I think that’s really our goal, and that is really special about Argentina.
Karl: What has happened to Torrontes and Bonarda in Argentina? I do not hear about these wines anymore.
Laura: I think that they are very different grapes with very different stories to tell. So, the one thing is Torrontes is quite aromatic, which has a terpenic taste sort of in the Riesling or Moscato family. It makes a very aromatic wine but it has a certain bitterness that is kind of an acquired taste. So, what I find is that people love it the first time they have it, but then they don’t often buy it again. We drink a lot of Torrontes in Argentina, but I don’t know if it will ever be successful as an export variety. Bonarda is a totally different story. Bonarda makes a beautiful wine, fruit-forward and beautiful tannins. It’s a little lighter than Malbec, but when you blend it with Malbec it is our equivalent of a Bordeaux blend. I’ve seen a lot of interest in Bonarda recently in Europe.
Karl: The last time we spoke was just before the COVID lockdown. How have things changed at your winery since the lockdown?
Laura: During this COVID pandemic, the wine industry was going on. That was all the same, but we were wearing masks. I think what has changed is that consumers have become used to drinking better wine because they didn’t spend money in restaurants, so they were buying more expensive wines. As you know, I’m a medical doctor, and I think that there is a lot of support for drinking better wine in moderation. Up to one glass per day for women and up to two for men. That’s not a lot. I think that this movement to drinking better quality wine becomes accompanied by drinking less. I think that if we can get to a point where you’re drinking better quality wine, it’s kind of like chocolate. it’s okay to have one piece of chocolate, but let’s not eat chocolate cake every day. I feel that wine is an incredibly pleasurable beverage, makes us happier, people smile more.
There are some health benefits in moderation in terms of reducing cardiovascular disease. If you do not drink in moderation, there are risks for cardiac and cancer problems. So I think that after the pandemic if we can move towards drinking less and better quality, it’ll be a good thing for the wine industry and for our consumers.
Karl: How was this year’s vintage?
Laura: We had a nice vintage, but we did have a spring frost that came when the grapes were about to form. There was one frost during flowering and one during veraison. So the yields were reduced in some areas at 30%. For us, our average reduction in yield was between 15 and 20%. It was a tough year for the quality. We did get a smaller yield but the remaining grapes had more concentration.
Karl: Do you have any new wine projects?
Laura: Every year is a new year because we have a new vintage. And we’re making natural wines called “La Marchigiana” for sale in Canada. These are wines without sulfites. We are making a Bonarda, a Malbec, and a Criolla (a relative to Pais and Mission grape) wine. The wines are made in amphora. Not as age-worthy as our other wines, but it is a really fun project.
Karl: I read that the WSET selected you as the new Honorary President and that you were also named the Drinks Business 2022 Woman of the Year. Congratulations. What will you be doing for WSET as the Honorary President?
Laura: The main thing that I will be doing is giving out awards. But the one thing that they’ve asked me to work on is their initiatives around diversity and opening new locations around the world. They would like to have more schools in America and in other places, and also to increase the diversity of people in wine, which I think is very important. Then the other thing that I want to work with them all is sustainability, and this is teaching people who love wine and work in wine, and what they can do to increase the sustainability of wine in industry.
Karl: Is there anything else that you would like to tell my readers?
Laura: I did receive an Old Vine Hero award that I am particularly happy about because to me, the diversity of vines and the genetic diversity is something really important that most wine drinkers don’t know, that there’s been a lot of reduction in the genetic diversity because it’s a lot easier to make a 100% single clone wine. Diversity in vineyards will sometimes be more irregular in their ripening, but I think that the diversity in vineyards makes the vineyard more resilient to climate change, so that’s something I’m particularly passionate about. Old vines and also keeping the old vines’ genetic material alive.
Karl: Thank you Dr. Catena for your time and insights. My interview with Dr. Laura Catena in 2020.