A WEEK OF ALTITUDE WINES AND LASER TOASTED BARRELS

Toronto, ON. 2015

in the headphones :  Benji  B on BBC Radio 1

the tasting begins. CATENA ZAPATA

The first day back to the grind after the Canadian Thanksgiving Long Weekend, was spent at a fun and innovative concept tasting of Malbec from the famed house of  Bodega Catena Zapata of Mendoza, Argentina. Catena Zapata is represented in Toronto by the wonderful people at Trialto Agency and they treated us to a structured and very cool interactive tasting of several of Catena's 'high altitude' single vineyard Malbec wines as well as the famous wine 'Alta Malbec', vintage 2012. The premise of the tasting was to examine and understand the nature of how they complete the Alta Malbec wine, which is in actuality a blend of 5 different single vineyard sites found at altitudes ranging from 860 to 1500 metres above sea level. Now, I myself and many of my peers love 'altitude' wines. Why? More often than not the wines offer up a quality of fruit flavour combined with a natural freshness and precision that tastes and feels very different then wines at lower altitudes and certainly those of valley's and plains. How? in a simple explanation are these sensations achieved? I can only deduce that the freshness of microclimate at altitude and greater proximity to the sun provide that necessary photosynthetic energy needed to ripen the grape with a natural and evident cool climate. I think about skiing as a natural analogy …as fresh as it is on the peaks, you always leave sun soaked or sunburnt.

(Sun Energy generates ripe grapes) + (Cold Air elevates acid) = Really Fun and Balanced Wines. 

Well…actually there is a bit more than that and fortunately we had Ernesto Bajda, Catena's Wine Maker walk us through the site specific nature of each vineyard, the nature of the Malbec clone used and actual insight into the respiratory cycle of the vine as it lives and breaths at altitude.

Lets talk Altitude

The methods that Ernesto and the team at Catena use to make their famous wines is really an exercise in climate blending in order to create wines of unique flavour and aromatic expression. We have to thank Nicolas Catena for his insight into creating and developing their single vineyard system. The vineyards are found between 860 metres and 1500 metres above sea level in the Uco Valley at roughly 10km away from the snow line of the Andes Mountains. The Andes are the highest mountain range in the Americas and is also the longest range in the world. Altitude and Longitude are key elements considered in the raising of their Malbec grapes. With 330 days of sunshine (which is a hell of a lot) and an annual average of only 8" of rain fall, the zone is dry and arid. The water needed to feed the grapes is control irrigated from the melted snow of the Andes. As far as vintages are concerned it's really about temperature creating good to great vintages and in the case of a bad vintage it would be influenced on the level of excess rainfall in the year.  Here at Catena they control the water stress of the vines, helping to focus the vine plant energy into the grapes rather than on growth. I conclude that Catena has utmost control on how to influence or not to influence the growth of the vine.  

History dictates that it was a certain Frenchman, Francois Pouget, that in 1852 immigrated to Argentina and with him brought cuttings of Malbec from France. In 1898 Nicolas Catena (Nicolas's grandfather) immigrated from Italy to Argentina and founded their home and home vineyard in the Uco Valley. The home vineyard has since been named Angelica after Nicolas's mother and it is here that Nicolas's father felt the family could create enjoyable and great wines from Malbec. The family philosophy is that Malbec should not be harsh and tannic, nor rustic. It should be plum candy pleasant, with enjoyable and delicate tannin. Catena would stand to create plush, plump plum and floral wines to be enjoyed and cherished. In the 1990's Nicolas would endeavour to find the best plants from the home vineyard, Angelica. He found 145 ideal plants and from that found 5 individual plants that would propagate the 4 other vineyards. The difference in the vineyards, outside of soil and other factors would be that they would be at varying altitudes. He determined that vines at different altitudes produced different quality of grape that would eventually contribute to the complexity of the exalted Catena - Alta Malbec blend.

He took a scientific research approach to creating his single vineyards. For every 100 metre increase in altitude you lose 1 degree celsius. The science behind this is that basically the vine has a certain threshold for heat, for it to generate energy and a tolerance for air pressure in order to breath and recover. We talk of diurnal temperature shifts in certain wine making regions as important factors to ripen grapes but also to balance grapes with acidity. The high heat of the day creates sugar in the fruit and the cooler the night allows for the 'creation' of acid as the vine breaths. Now it is said that at more than 33 degrees celsius day time temperatures the vine will shut down/stop working and will stop breathing in order to protect itself and it's fruit. The vine will then wait for the cooler night temperature to continue working and to recover. Instead of photosynthetic energy used, at night the plant will 'eat' it's tannin and sugar as they respire at night and resume work, thus raising the acidity levels as a result. Ideally the more consistent the temperature shift the more natural the plant behaviour and more natural the resulting wine. Well Nicolas determined that at in certain sites of the Uco Valley, there was a constant day temperature of 30 to 32 degrees celsius because of the coolness of the mountain air at altitude, therefore there was never or rarely a point in the day that the vine stopped working. The desert like conditions of the Uco Vally at night was equally 'fresh' and the plant could breath and recover without using the energy (sugar and tannin) that would normally go into the grape bunches. Less diurnal shift and constant work over the 330 days of sunshine would create the ideal conditions to find a new expression for Malbec grapes for him to blend. Not to forget that Air pressure was also a factor. The higher you go the more air pressure. The pressure is created by the Atmosphere, as the filter between the suns heat energy and us as living being. It protects and moderates that energy as it reaches us living beings. At higher altitude there is 'less' of a filter therefore more direct and pure sunlight and a higher air pressure, less water loss and more water retention. The key was to find higher sites with consistent heat but cooler temperatures and that's is where the longitude of the Andes comes in. Starting at the Angelica (home vineyard at 920m) and rising to the highest vineyard and the most prized, the Adrianna (at 1450m) then moving to the southern vineyards of Nicasia (at 1200m is still consistently warm but is also in a much cooler zone as due to orientation in Southern hemisphere). Sounds complicated but as we tasted through the several single vineyards 'we could feel' the difference. 

The fun part of this tasting was that we (some 15 or so Sommelier and Wine Buyers in attendance) attempted to recreate the Catena Alta Malbec blend from the samples of the single vineyards we had in front of us. This component added a nice twist to the 'classic' master class tasting structure. My blend was a broken down to 50% of the 'La Piramide Vineyard' (on clay soil in a rather flat plains area at 950m) with 20% each of two different sections of the 'Adrianna' Vineyard (limestone and clay soils with sand at 1500m) finished with 20% of the home vineyard 'Angelica' (gravel and river bed soil with clay at 920m). Ernesto did make the rounds of the room tasting and discussing our 'individual blends' and he found that some us were not far off from his original blend, though we will never know the real recipe. 

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LASER TOASTED BARRELS W/ ROCCHE DEI MANZONI, MONFORTE D'ALBA - BAROLO

RODOLFO MIGLIORINI AND GIULIA NEGRO were in Toronto recently to tour and taste the family wines of Rodolfo Migliorini with Giulia as chief of Marketing. The family has 6 hectares in Barolo, primarily in Monforte d'Alba from cru vineyards such as Santo Stefano, Mosconi and Rue among others. Rodolfo defines the house style as not modern by any stretch of the imagination but rather traditional and innovative. I learned this and questioned this mindset only after tasting the 2010 Barbera d'Alba 'La Cresta' considered their most traditional wine. I was impressed with a clean, forward and transparent profile, filled in with spice red currant and an earthy richness with the classic Barbera brightness and fresh nature. It will cost you $30 plus for this wine but I found it worth it. The wine is aged in 'new barrel' but barrel that is toasted by laser and not fire. Rodolfo explained that barrels toasted by Laser eliminated the caramel and vanilla flavours that are normally associated with 'fire toasted barrel' these rich flavours are often then integrated into the wines, rendering Barbera as a creamy vanilla and blueberry pied wine. They also rest the barrels for one year exposed outside as a form of seasoning before they are used. Combined with time in concrete egg before bottling the Barbera was incredibly rich yet fresh. 

Manzoni

2013 Langhe Nebbiolo coming from higher vineyards in Monforte, to accentuate a fresh and floral nature to the wines are not an attempt at being a 'baby Barolo' but to rather be a great Nebbiolo. This time second use barrel aged wines produced fruit forward, cherry and currant flavours with floral and spiced notes and a delightful fullness that was undeniably approachable . 

2010 Barolo 'Big d' Big' is a single vineyard called Big d' Big, named after the first owner of the vineyard who after World War II left for America and became a rich man. Upon his return to Piemonte he purchased this 'rather large' vineyard and his nickname was Mr. Big. On official appellation maps the vineyard is named Big d'Big. Now…I expected a super modern and rich Barolo from this 'great' 2010 vintage. The wine was floral and ripe upfront, elegant and inviting with earthy and savoury notes that kept the wine grounded.