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Argentina's ambassador of wine

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

California had Mondavi. Argentina has Catena.

Robert Mondavi, who died last year at age 94, was a giant in the U.S. wine industry. He has been credited with inspiring growth in high-quality wine production throughout California and helping to create a wine culture in a country known to favor beer and hard spirits. Nicolás Catena, at 69, is the visionary who saw Argentina's potential to produce fine wine and become a major power in the global wine market.

Catena's role in transforming Argentina's wine industry led Decanter, the British wine magazine, to name him Man of the Year for 2009. It was the first time Decanter had bestowed the honor on someone from South America since the magazine created the award in 1984. (The title has gone to a U.S. recipient three times, including Mondavi in 1989.)

At a reception early this month at the Argentine Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Héctor M. Timerman called Catena "one of the best ambassadors Argentina has ever sent overseas . . . a pioneer in realizing the potential of our wines and their high quality and the favorable opportunities for them in the international market." Wine, he added, had become one of Argentina's greatest exports, along with beef and the tango.

Argentina's wine exports to the United States have indeed risen dramatically this decade. In 2004, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures provided by the embassy, the United States imported nearly $34 million in premium red wine from Argentina, about a third of what we imported from Spain. Last year, Argentina's premium red wine sales to the United States topped $116 million, while through July of this year we gulped down more than $85 million worth. If that trend holds, Argentina will overtake Spain as Americans' fifth-favorite red wine supplier, and it will challenge Chile for fourth place. (Italy, France and Australia top the list.)

The dominance of Argentine malbec as one of the best-value red-wine bargains in the market today owes a lot to Catena. As a third-generation vintner in an industry that produced bulk wine for a thirsty domestic market, he became inspired during a visit to Napa Valley in the early 1980s. He saw a young wine industry challenging France as a producer of the world's best wines. He implemented what he termed "drastic changes" in vineyard management and winemaking at his own winery, including the use of small oak barrels. His changes worked, and Catena wines hit the export markets with the 1990 vintage.

Catena is a scholarly, soft-spoken man who is not shy about his accomplishments but is also eager to share credit with those who helped him. For example, he praises Bordeaux vintner Jacques Lurton for inspiring his next innovation. "When Jacques Lurton tasted my wine, he said it was obvious it came from a hot region, which limited complexity," Catena said. "That was another major turning point in my quest for perfection. From that moment, the connection between terroir and quality became my main concern. I worked under the hypothesis that temperature was the relevant factor to explain quality in Mendoza."

Other vintners thought Catena was crazy. "Planting at high altitudes, climbing the heights of the Andes looking for lower temperatures, risking early and late frosts, this became my obsession," he said.

But then came the realization of the second factor in Argentina's success with malbec. Catena discovered that the higher he planted, not only did the temperature became cooler but the sunlight became brighter and more intense, so the grapes could ripen despite the shorter growing season. The key, he soon realized, was to find vineyards that balanced cool temperatures to maintain acidity and structure with intense sunlight to ripen the grapes fully. Today, the Andes foothills and the Uco Valley of Mendoza are prime vineyard land.

The Catena line now spans the price spectrum, including everyday wines under the Alamos label, which can still be found on sale for under $10, and single-vineyard, high-altitude malbec produced in small quantities and priced accordingly, at about $125 per bottle. He has turned over operation of the winery to his daughter Laura, who also makes wines under the Luca label (named for her son).

Catena's discovery launched Argentina's wine boom and lured a horde of French and American winemakers to Mendoza to plant and make malbec. Some of those wines now garner more attention and accolades than Catena's, but they all owe a debt to him and his quest for perfection, as the founding father of modern Argentine wine.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web sites, http://www.dmwineline.com and http://drinklocalwine.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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