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Wine: A vertical exercise in Argentine greatness

Vertical tastings -- several vintages of the same wine tasted together -- are the quintessential vinonerd exercise. Only the most dedicated wine lovers enjoy comparing the nuances of how a wine develops over time. After all, most wines are consumed within weeks of purchase. Collecting is for old fogies. Rich old fogies at that, nowadays.

But vertical tastings give an unparalleled insight into a wine's quality and development over time. For collectors looking to invest, such exercises are crucial. For those of us who just love the game, they are educational.

So I was eager to be educated Tuesday evening at the Embassy of Argentina, where I joined about 40 other wine lovers for a 10-year retrospective of Nicolas Catena Zapata. This is the top cuvée of the Catena winery, Argentina's most famous winery and still at the top of its game. The tasting was sponsored by the Calvert Woodley wine store and its owner, Ed Sands, and Alfredo Bartholomaus of Emerald Wines (a division of Winebow). Bartholomaus was the first importer to bring Catena wines into the United States back in the early 1990s, and many of the bottles opened Tuesday night came from his cellar. We tasted vintages from 1997, the inaugural release, through 2007, which will be released in March 2011. (There was no 1998 produced; that was a really disastrous vintage in Mendoza.)

Current releases of the Nicolas Catena Zapata sell for $110. Unusually for Argentina, which specializes in malbec, the wine is based on cabernet sauvignon, with about 15 to 20 percent malbec depending on the vintage. With the 2006, cabernet franc was added to the blend. While there were no French or California wines to compare at this tasting, this is clearly the type of wine with which emerging regions such as Argentina can provide value even on the luxury end of the price scale.

"When I get up in the morning, I don't thank God, I thank the French for keeping their prices so high," Bartholomaus quipped.

Looking at the glasses arrayed before me in the dining room at the newly renovated embassy, I noticed that the color changed with the 2002, from deep, inky purple in the younger wines to a more ruby red as the wines aged. The older wines were quite aromatic, especially the 2003, which I could have smelled all night without tasting and still have been happy. From 1997 through the 2003, the wines were vibrant and lively, with pronounced acidity in the middle yielding to a long silky finish.

From 2004 through 2007, the wines were quite young: tight and closed, so that one had to concentrate and will the wine to reveal its aromas. But they were big and fruity wines. The acidity was suddenly softer and the alcohol more noticeable, signaling perhaps a stylistic change in winemaking toward a more New World style.

Here are my notes from this terrific tasting:

1997: Aromas of green olives, tea and wood spice. Rich body, dark fruit flavors are still lively; astringent on the middle but it smooths out on the finish. 2-1/2 stars out of 3.

1999: Aromas are fresher, with some mint and boysenberry, plus cherry on the palate. Long and rich, not yet fully mature. 3 stars.

2000: Nutty, creamy nose, a hint of sweaty leather. Astringent acidity on the mid-palate. The least interesting of the tasting, probably in decline. 1 star.

2001: Fruity aromas, dark berries and spice - clove and nutmeg. This wine is in full adolescence, shaking off its youth and trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. 2-1/2 stars.

2002: Very similar to the 2001, at a similar stage of development. 2-1/2 stars.

2003: Wow! Captivating aromas of coffee, toast and spice dance out of the glass. This is the first wine where the oak is still apparent, but it by no means dominates. The fruit is explosive, the acidity mid-palate is still pronounced, and the finish features those soft, nearly invisible tannins that are Argentina's, and especially Catena's, hallmark. 3 stars.

2004: The wines are now young: inky in color and reticent and closed in aroma. The acidity is also missing in the 2004, giving it the texture almost of soft mineral water. The fruit is intense and long, and those velvety tannins caress the palate. 3 stars.

2005: Sulfur dominated the nose on this one, but the palate is quite rich with black currant and cherry flavors and a caramel-like sweetness. This vintage needs more time to shake out. 1-1/2 stars.

2006: Inky color, closed nose. The mouthfeel is noticeably richer and fatter, and the alcohol more apparent. This is a massive wine that should appeal to lovers of California cabernet. 2-1/2 stars.

2007: This wine won't be released until March 2011, and it should benefit from the extra bottle age. Rough and tumble, it has explosive fruit, noticeable sweetness and alcohol. 2-1/2 stars.

-- Dave McIntyre
(Follow me on Twitter.)

NOTE: Calvert Woodley has limited amounts of the 2006 Nicolas Catena Zapata available, as well as the winery's single-vineyard malbecs and the entire line of Catena wines.

By Dave McIntyre  | September 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags:  Dave McIntyre, wine  
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