Yes, everyone knows that Catena Zapata, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, is best-known for its red wines, particularly made from malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes, but at the risk of seeming perverse, I want in this post to concentrate on the winery’s chardonnays. I promise that in a few days I will get back to Catena and its history and its red wines. This is, of course, the first in a series of posts that I’ll be working on in the next month or so about the wineries I visited, the wines I encountered and the people I met in Chile and Argentina between Oct. 3 and 12, early Spring south of the Equator.

Bodega Catena Zapata traces its origin to 1902, when Italian immigrant Nicola Catera, gifted with a vision the result of which even he could not have comprehended, planted malbec grapes in Mendoza. The winery is now run by Nicola’s grandson Nicolás and great-grand-daughter, Laura. Chief winemaker since July 2007 has been Alejandro Vigil, though a good word must be put in for young assistant winemaker Pablo Sánchez, who oversees white wine production.

The philosophy at Catena Zapata is to grow grapes in vineyards that push the limits of altitude (if not attitude). Grapes for the Catena label ($16-$22), Catena Alta ($35-$50) and Catena Zapata and Nicolas Catena Zapata ($120) derive from these Andean-foothills vineyards: Angelica, 2,850 feet; La Piramide, 3,100 feet; Domingo, 3,700 feet; Altamira, 3,870 feet; and Adrianna, 5,000 feet; these vineyards, especially Adrianna, are very high for chardonnay. Alcohol levels are kept relatively moderate, with 14.2 percent being the highest. The vineyards — referring to all the grapes here, not just chardonnay — go through the expensive process of four harvests, not to balance the same level of ripeness but to use different levels of ripeness to achieve complexity in the wines.

Catena Zapata’s American importer is Winebow. Images of Nicolás Catena and daughter Laura from catenawines.com.

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Grapes for the Catena Chardonnay 2009, Mendoza, are from La Piramide, Domingo and Adrianna vineyards. The wine is 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged nine months in French oak barrels, 40 percent of which were new. The color is radiant medium straw-gold; the bouquet is bright, fresh, bold, spicy, moderately tropical in nature and a little sassy for a chardonnay. Flavors of pineapple and mango are borne up by notes of roasted and slightly caramelized pears and peaches, and if you take from that description that the wine is rich and concentrated, you would be correct, but that richness is leavened by a strain of profound limestone-like minerality and tongue-tingling acidity. The Catena Chardonnay 2009 is sleek and smooth, suave, sophisticated, obviously very well-made, yet I cannot go as high as an Excellent rating because my palate feels a bit too much oak on the finish, marring what would otherwise be an impeccable package. Drink now through 2012. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $16, and whatever my caveats may be a Great Value.
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The Adrianna Vineyard provides 80 percent of the grapes for the Catena Alta Chardonnay 2008, with the rest derived from the Domingo Vineyard. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged 12 to 16 months in French oak, of which 50 percent were new barrels. No caveats whatever attend my appreciation of this chardonnay; it’s spectacular, by which I don’t mean flamboyant or obtrusive, rather utterly confident, wealthy in dimension, generous in detail and nuance. The color is very pale straw with barely a shade of gold. Penetrating scents of limestone and shale-like minerality lend this chardonnay true Chablisesque purity and intensity; there are touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm (both in nose and mouth), a hint of tangerine and, after a few moments of swirling and sniffing, notes of green grapes, green plums, quince and ginger, the latter two elements also present in the flavor profile. The edgeless balance among scintillating acidity, the wine’s natural lively minerality and the subtlety and suppleness of the oak regimen create a wine that’s racy, stimulating and exciting, certainly among the four or five greatest chardonnay wines I have tasted this year. Drink now through 2015 or ’16, well-stored. 13.9 percent alcohol. Production was 3,000 cases. Exceptional. About $35, and worth every damned penny.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________ For lunch at the winery, chef Lucas Bustos-Garcia prepared a first course of Brie Crostini with quinoa, raisins and sweet corn salad, a tasty and very pretty way to start the meal. Served with this appetizer was the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006, a limited-production wine, about 300 cases, that would be worth every effort to beg, borrow or steal, if any exists out there in the world. (The wine does not appear on the Catena website, and the only reference I find on the Internet is Tom Cannavan’s wine-pages.com, see here.) At a bit more than four years after harvest, this chardonnay is superbly ripe and succulent but quite dry, even a little austere. The oak seems a tad obvious at first, but food and a few minutes in the glass smooth out that influence, leaving flavors of lemon balm, green plums and quince permeated by cloves and sandalwood and an intriguing dusty, leafy quality layered over limestone and salt marsh. (What do I mean? — something clean, bracing, organic, earthy, invigorating, yet smooth and sapid.) So savory was this chardonnay that I saved a few swallows to have with the next course, miniature sweet potato and butternut squash pies, in white ramekins, that concealed diced beef in a juicy broth (see accompanying image). As with the chardonnays from Catena mentioned above, the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006 is suave, elegant and almost seamless. It could go another four or five years, if stored properly. Excellent, to be sure. Price? I dunno if it was even released. The wine certainly proves, if we needed more evidence, that high-altitude chardonnay can be both classic and individual, and that Adrianna is one of the world’s great vineyards. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________