Back in October, I wrote about the chardonnay wines of Catena Zapata, an estate, in Mendoza, Argentina, far better known for its red wines made primarily from malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes. Today, finally, it’s the turn of those red wines. Every detail of production is overseen by Nicol├ís Catena and his daughter Laura Catena, while the chief winemaker is Alejandro Vigil.

These products of Catena Zapata are imported by Winebow Inc., New York. I tasted them at the Mayan-style winery — why Mayan in Argentina? — on Oct. 11, 2010.
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The Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, offers an intense ruby red-cranberry color and vivid aromas of red and black cherries, red and black currants, lavender and licorice and a high note of wild berry. The wine aged 16 months in 85 percent French oak barrels (30 percent new) and 15 percent American oak, and you feel the tug of that oak in some austerity through the finish, but what mainly impresses is this cabernet’s sleek, polished character, its spicy juicy black fruit flavors and its dense, chewy texture that nicely balances plushness with some structural rigor. Grapes for the wine come from vineyards at elevations of 3100 feet, 3700 feet and 3870 feet. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. Very Good+. About $16.
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The Catena Malbec 2008, Mendoza, delivers a smashingly authentic expression of the grape. The color is dark ruby; black currant and plum aromas are permeated by notes of cedar and tobacco, black olive and tomato skin, a dry, earthy brier-and-bramble-like effect. To the black currant and plum flavors is added a touch of blueberry tart, while the spicy oak is almost creamy. (The regimen is slightly different from the process with the Cabernet Sauvignon 2008; here it’s 16 months in 70 percent French barrels, 20 percent new, and 30 percent American oak.) Don’t let that quiver of creaminess and tart throw you off, however; the wine is taut and vibrant, highlighted by keen acidity, and overall beautifully balanced. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $20-$22.
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The “Alta” wines represent a more rigorous grape selection from particular vineyard lots, longer maceration of the grapes and more exposure to oak, for the red wines 18 to 24 months in French barrels, 70 percent of which are new. The Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Mendoza, derives half from La Piramide, at 3100 feet, and half from Domingo, at 3700 feet. This wine just smolders in the glass; my first note is “Wow!” Imagine freshly ground Tellicherry and Szechuan pepper combined with cloves and allspice, dried ancho chiles and bitter chocolate, spiced and macerated black cherries and currants and a strain of licorice and lavender and you get some idea of the immense seductive power this wine embodies, both in nose and mouth. Yes, there’s succulence here, but the wine manages to be as graceful as it is lush, as elegant as it is dynamic, and the many dimensions of polished oak and dense chewy tannins that characterize its structure are finely-knit and well-balanced. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $50.
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I found the Catena Alta Malbec 2007, Mendoza, a little unresolved; perhaps two or three years aging will bring it more into equilibrium. I was surprised that this malbec was both more plush and voluptuous than its cabernet sauvignon cousin from 2007 but more austere, more leathery and minerally in the granite and graphite-like sense. Try from 2013 or ’14 to 2017 to ’20. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Very Good+. About $50.
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The single-vineyard Catena Zapata label and the Nicolas Catena Zapata are the estate’s flagship wines. They age 24 months in 100 percent new French oak. The grapes for the Catena Zapata Malbec Nicasia 2007 derive from the Nicasia vineyard (named for Nicolas Catena’s grandmother) which lies at 3870 feet above sea level. The bouquet is a deliriously attractive amalgam of elderberry, mulberry and blueberry that segues to black currants and plums infused with cedar and tobacco, spice-box and spice-cake, hints of roses and lilacs, smoke, ash and leather. Unabashedly gorgeous, yes, and the black and blue fruit flavors are lip-smackin’ ripe and delicious, but fortunately the high sensual quotient is leavened by not just dense, not just chewy but almost thick, grainy tannins and a profound mineral quality that dictate years of aging, as in trying from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’22. Unless, of course, you wanted to open such a wine tonight with a medium-rare ribeye steak or rosemary-and-garlic studded leg of lamb hot and crusty from the grill. Production was 350 cases. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $120.
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Even better, to this palate, is the Catena Zapata Malbec Adrianna 2007, Mendoza, a wine that subsumes any showiness or bravado to its important work of revealing the inherent structure that vineyard, grapes and oak aging impose. Adrianna is the highest of the Catena vineyards in elevation, reaching up to 5000 feet above sea-level; yep, that’s close to a mile. That high, rock-ribbed austere nature is preeminently manifest in this wine of towering ambition, confidence and power; the combination of almost giddy verve and brooding dignity satisfies in the same way that sitting in the seat of a fabulous automobile and closing the door with a self-sufficient, whispered “thunk” brings balm to the troubled spirit. And yet how deftly, even gracefully, the wine offers its myriad dimensions and details, its subtleties and nuances. I’ll venture out to the end of a limb here and say that the Catena Zapata Malbec Adrianna is the best expression of the malbec grape made in the world. 350 cases. 14 percent alcohol. Drink from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Exceptional. About $120.
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Yet I could not cotton to the uncharacteristically over-the-top Nicolas Catena Zapata 2007, Mendoza, with 65 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and 35 percent malbec the only blended wine in the Catena Zapata roster. The color is very dark purple, almost black, and the bouquet is a seething cauldron of licorice and lavender, mulberry and blackberry jam, lilac, and, I swear, a touch of super-ripe zinfandel-like boysenberry. This is an incredibly rich and succulent wine, which, thank goodness, possesses the heaps of graphite and lead pencil and shale, scintillating acidity and dense, dusty, chewy tannins to keep it from being shameless. This is the most “Californian” of these red wines. 3,000 cases. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’20. Very Good+. About $120.

On this occasion we also tasted a barrel sample of the Nicolas Catena Zapata 2009, which will be released in the Fall of 2012. A blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and 40 percent malbec, this deep, dark, truculent wine was very intense and concentrated, quite austere and even astringent in its rip-roaring tannins and spicy, woody oak element. Long life ahead here, and I suspect that once the wine is released that it will be more to my liking than its cousin from 2007.
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