Catena Zapata, the iconic Argentine winery, has been crowned ‘The World’s Most Admired Wine Brand’ by Drinks International and Wine Intelligence, becoming the first Argentine winery to receive the coveted accolade.
Founded in 1902, the family-owned winery in Mendoza claimed the top spot of Drinks International’s annual ranking of most admired wine brands, based on votes by global drinks buyers and wine experts, including professionals from 48 different countries.
This makes Catena Zapata the latest addition to an elite echelon of most admired wine brands including previous winners such as Spain’s Familia Torres, Concha y Toro from Chile and Australia’s Penfolds.
Celebration amid Coronavirus
Though Argentina started making wines in 16th century, the country’s wine would be still be dismissed as plonk if it weren’t for Catena Zapata whose visionary leader Nicolás Catena shunned Bordeaux darling Cabernet Sauvignon in favour of Malbec and modernized the country’s winemaking. The rest as they say is history.
What would normally fete an award of this magnitude with sumptuous celebrations turned into what Dr. Laura Catena, daughter of Nicolás and fourth generation owner, calls “a dilemma” this year. With social distancing and global travel restrictions amid the Coronavirus pandemic, celebration was somber and measured.
Devoid of any gala dinners or parties, the winery was agile and embraced the virtual world, organizing Zoom calls with partners and clients around the world from Latin America, Asia, North America, Africa, Oceania, Central America and Europe for a virtual toast to offer encouragement for these in quarantine and hope for better times.
“Normally we would have parties and doing wine tastings but we thought there is no time in the world to celebrate,” says Laura, who became a medical doctor during the AIDs epidemic before joining the family business.
“We felt very thankful to our customers because this is not an award for the best wine. That’s an award for the terroir, the vineyard and the winemaker,” she says, though the winery has no shortage of 100-point wines given out by wine critics including Robert Parker and James Suckling for its single vineyard, high-altitude Adrianna Vineyard Malbec and Chardonnays.
Referring back to the most recent win, she says “This is an award for doing a good job with your partners around the world,” attributing the win to all of her staff, partners and clients and the great people who have worked at the family winery since 1902.
Argentina and Malbec
The historical win is also a validation for Argentina and its signature grape Malbec, which as Laura describes “was almost extinct” before it was reborn in Argentina.
With Malbec’s success in Argentina, today the grape is gaining popularity around the world with plantings in California and Italy. Distinguishing the common Cot clones used elsewhere, Laura notes the clones planted in Argentina are mostly pre-phylloxera vines on their roots, which tend to be “low-yielding,” hence producing wines that are “more elegant and more concentrated”.
“I am just hoping the award will help Argentina, and what’s particular about Argentine wines is that we can achieve brightness without too much alcohol, and the wines are smooth due to the long hang time. This allows tannins to repine and that’s the ideal wine,” she explains.
Since the winery started exports in 1990s, it has revolutionized Argentina’s farming practices to plant high-altitude vines for cooler climate, higher acidity, and more concentration, aided with the research from its own research institute.
It also pioneered sustainability and created the sustainability code which is now used by many Argentine winery, a key proponent, according to Laura, to truly being an admirable brand.
The winery’s work in popularizing Malbec is apparently paying off, with now its wines exported worldwide and two of its top cuvees ‘Nicolás Catena Zapata’ and ‘Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae Malbec’ sold through Bordeaux’s La Place system. In mainland China and Hong Kong, the winery is steadily expanding its foothold, where 5% of its all exported wines are destined. Half of its wines are consumed domestically, according to Laura.
Its premium wine range including Adrianna Vineyard wines are particularly a hit among wine drinkers in this market, where 25% of its top cuvees are sold, she reveals.
“Malbec is a good variety, and I hope it will help Argentina. Chile started much earlier in Asia, and I am hoping this award will have an impact to Asia as it’s suited for Asian food,” she says, making a reference to Argentina’s more successful ‘arch enemy’ in Asia, Chile.
Last year, the winery generated a lot of buzz in China’s wine world when it hosted a gala dinner at the Great Wall of China in Beijing to celebrate 100-point Adrianna Vineyard wines with more than 100 guests.
Speaking to Vino Joy News via Zoom, the doctor-turned-vigneron is hopeful that things will return to normal and the wine industry will overcome the challenges of Covid-19.
“We have been making wines since 1902 from my great grandfather to my father. It has never been easy. We always had hard times but somehow we have managed to stay in business for all these years,” she says, injecting a dose of confidence.
The pandemic as she observes is going to change how people are going to sell and communicate wines with more e-commerce sales and fewer and “unnecessary” business travels, which would in fact help cutting down carbon emission, she says.
But for now, the dynamic vintner is already eyeing for the next challenge, the next award and life after Covid-19.
Recalling the times when she received awards with her father for Decanter Man of the Year and Best Argentine Winery by Wine Advocate, she says,” whenever we get an award, we ask ‘why aren’t we happier?’ We are just like soldiers and always trying to go higher and higher. We take little time to cerebrate and congratulate ourselves. Hardships motivate us more than successes.”