When two great winemaking families from different parts of the globe cast their lot together, predicting how the new baby wine will turn out can be pretty much a guessing game. While a few fall short of expectations, most turn out to be good, often very good. Only rarely, however, is something exceptional created.
But that is what has happened with a new Cabernet-based wine called Caro, a joint venture between Lafite Rothschild, the most prestigious Bordeaux Chateau, and the Nicolas Catena family, widely regarded as the elite winemaking family of Argentina. The 2000 Caro is not merely delectable. It is destined to start a revolution.
Like a precocious little Mozart, a super-baby like this might be enough to scare the parents. Though undoubtedly proud, both parents have some explaining to do. Lafite Rothschild sells for $175 a bottle. Bodega Catena's top wine, called Zapata, is priced at $90. Caro is a mere $39, chump change in the rarefied world of elite wines nowadays. Based solely on quality, without regard to price, choosing among them would be a close call for me. When price is factored in, it's a no-brainer. Caro is the blowout winner.
Trouncing Catena Zapata isn't really all that shocking. Zapata isn't my style of wine to begin with. It's a massive, concentrated wine made mostly from super-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon with a bit of Malbec and Merlot blended in. I find such wines more impressive than enjoyable, especially when food compatibility is considered. The $90 price tag was intended primarily as an attention-getter, and only 1,000 cases made were made. Wines of this type are not what Catena is all about anyway. Its real achievement is the exceptional quality of its offerings in the $25 range, particularly the Malbecs and Chardonnays. It has also done a great job with its Alamos range of wines, which offer exceptional value in the $10 category, and with Trumpeter and Gascon, two Catena-run operations that sell for even less. From that perspective, Caro should really be viewed as further confirmation that Catena is the top winery in Argentina.
The real stunner is the comparison with Lafite. I cannot say that Caro is better than Lafite, a first growth Bordeaux that is a privilege to drink at every encounter. What I can say is that Caro has something Lafite lacks and will always lack -- a component of superb Malbec. Ironically, the Malbec is a traditional Bordeaux grape. Though once widely used in Bordeaux, it has largely been abandoned there due to its hardness. Presently, Lafite uses none.
In Argentina, however, Malbec appears to have found its true home. Indeed, what initially attracted Baron Edward Rothschild to Argentina was the talk of the great Malbecs grown there, particularly those of Catena. In 1999, the two families met at a New York wine expo, where the idea of a joint venture was hatched. From the beginning, the idea was to make the world's best combination of Cabernet and Malbec. The first vintage of Caro, the just-released 2000, is 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 33 percent Malbec.
The best way to describe Caro is to imagine what Lafite would taste like if Bordeaux could still produce great Malbec (no one is sure why it can't anymore; some think it is climate change, others poor clonal selection) for blending. Lafite is pretty much perfect as it is, but a bit of truly fine Malbec would make it only more perfect, adding a bit more thrust of red fruit to the core of the palate, and a hint of super-ripeness to nose. But it won't happen, and maybe it's best not to mess with such perfection at any rate.
What is also remarkable about Caro is how "R" it is. ("R" is for Rothschild [Lafite], as opposed to Mouton Rothschild, also a first growth, but owned by the English branch of the family.) One finds the same character -- an extra whiff of fresh cedar in the nose, a distinct elegance and layered complexity on the palate -- in all the Domaines Rothschild wines, including Los Vascos in Chile (a low-price Cabernet that has yet to realize the promise of its initial offering in 1989), Duhart Milon (a lovely classified growth Pauillac), Carruades de Lafite (the second label of Lafite made from young vines on the estate) and, of course, Lafite itself. In this hierarchy, I would put Caro on a level with Duhart or Carruades, just short of the incomparable Lafite, but clearly superb. Moreover, in keeping with the elegant "R" philosophy, it is a two-bottle wine, meaning that one could enjoy a second bottle over the course of the evening without the palate fatigue of a heavier wine setting in.
Success has many parents, but credit here must accorded winemakers Estela Perinetti, who also supervises the winemaking of the inexpensive Catena-owned Gascon wines, and Christian Le Sommer, formerly of Chateau Latour and now a consultant for Domaines Baron Rothschild (Lafite). The two have obviously done a fine job of accommodating two cultures and of matching the Argentine terroir with Rothschild's atelier winemaking philosophy.
The future for Caro seems assured. Production, now 3,800 cases, may go has high as 30,000 when a dedicated winemaking facility is completed within five years. But this success will depend on keeping the price no higher than it is now, at the high end of reasonable. A bit of a reduction would be even better.
But what of the future of Malbec? This is where the revolution referred to above will take place. Perhaps counter-revolution is the better word. Most of Argentina is preoccupied with making all or mostly Malbec wines. This is understandable, as it is a wine they do well and one that provides a marketing hook in varietally oriented North America, as in "I'll have a Malbec."
Caro will change this, by putting Malbec back where it belongs, as an excellent blending grape. By itself, Malbec will always be too one-dimensional to make truly world class wine. But Malbec -- especially Argentine Malbec -- can be world class in the right blend. A sip of Caro is all the proof that is needed.