I recently organized a tour to Mendoza, Argentina for wine enthusiast from the U.S.  The program was structured to explore other “Wine Countries” through meetings with owners of some of the premier wineries in Mendoza. Over the past few years I have been trying some of the wines of Argentina and Chile and became impressed with these wines and thought others might like to get to know some great wines from South America.  Even respected winemakers from the U.S. and Europe have recently open wineries in Mendoza; Paul Hobbs for one.  The wine industry in Argentina is the 4th largest in the world today, so obviously, they have something to offer people who enjoy wine.

One of the wineries that was recommended to visit was Bodegas Catena Zapata in Mendoza.  Founded in 1898, Catena Zapata wines have become recognized as one of the premier wines of Argentina.  But achieving excellence in wine was no accident or practicing traditional winemaking; it has come about from a great deal of investment in time and research.  The Catena Family, approximately 40 years ago, committed to making wines that were as good as any of the fine wines of the world.  To get there, their strategy was to invest in research. Their research was not limited to grape clones, but included irrigation options, soil chemistry, elevation, plant chemistry within the vine and fruit, and harvesting.

The Catena’s under the direction of Nicolas Catena’s daughter, Dr. Laura Catena, launched a major research effort with far reaching ramification for the wine industry in Argentina and the U.S.  In 1995 Dr. Catena, a medical doctor with degrees from Harvard and Stanford Universities, formalized a research program with UC Davis—The Catena Institute of Wine.  In 2015, Dr. Laura Catena sponsored a presentation with UC Davis titled: The Future of Wine Science. ‘So what’ you may ask?  For one thing, I am now a believer that terroir does matter a great in making great wines; not just expensive wines!

“In 2008 Catena Zapata was doing 250 microvinifications a year.  In 2010 that number, had climbed to 2,000 annually.  These microvinification trials are critical for any vineyard trials but often present a problem because of the difficulties with being precise and reproducible while still providing information that transfers directly to commercial winemaking,” writes Lance Cutler in November 2015 Wine Business Monthly.  This is important because much research involving wine does not involve the total process and is therefore difficult to understand and implement mthe findings into the real world of winemaking.

“Microvinification is a winemaking technique used often for experimental batches of wine where the wine is fermented in small, specialized vats. Microvinification allows a viticulturist to express the most natural, unadultered characteristics of a single terroir, or vineyard block,” as defined by Altos Las Hormigas wines.  This is the best definition that helps explain the minutia the involves the process.

Research is necessary if done properly, and yes it can be boring.  This effort with Catena Institute of Wine and UC Davis just might open some new appreciation of wine by the average and experienced wine consumer.  We now have science telling us different terroir really does make a difference in the wine.  Traditional winemaking rules may not be as important as a good understanding of terroir.  Read on, because terroir is not anything like a discussion of esoteric side of “umami”.

The Catena/UC Davis findings highlighted in “The Future of Wine Science” research conducted by Dr. Roger Boulton of UC Davis and Fernando Buscema of the Catena Institute focused on 26 distinct vineyard blocks in Mendoza and 16 blocks in California.  The study found, “results show that Malbec from Argentina differs greatly in its phenolic composition and sensory characteristics from California Malbec, and these differences can be seen as “fingerprints” of the sites where the wines come from.” I think as consumers looking to wine as a fulling experience, this statement basically is saying terroir dictates quite a bit.

Without getting into chemical structures of phenols, the simplest way to understand the phenols in wine is to realize that they are made up of hundreds of compounds.  Some of these can be considered “anti-oxidants”; one is resveratrol.  But, in the end these phenolic compounds are what gives wine its taste, color, texture/mouthfeel and aromas. And once in the barrel, and with age, wine can experience further change. Phenols in the wine mostly come from skins, seeds and oak from the barrel.

Science can tell us what the compounds are in the wine.  In this study by Dr. Catena and UC Davis we now know the same varietal will have a different “fingerprint” based upon terroir; even the terroir within each country (France, Argentina and U.S.). We also know that accepted traditional approaches to winemaking may not make for the best wine.  However, in the final analysis it is the aromas, mouthfeel, taste and color of wine that excites the consumer. An old Madison Avenue adage says it all—it isn’t creative if it doesn’t sell; consumers will ultimately pass judgement as research improves the creative quality of wine that consumers buy.

The ultimate consumer test is in the tasting.  As reported in a summary from Catena Institute of Wine, the program had a comparative tasting of three Malbec wines from different Catena Zapata’s high altitude vineyards to illustrate how characteristics vary between various vineyards.  There was a lively discussion at the UC Davis presentation as to how three wines, all made with the same grape and vinified in the same way, could be so different.  It seems that the researchers speculate the various taste profiles of the wine from three different plots might be the result of: soil, water movement, microbiomes, root temperature and sunlight intensity.  Interestingly, these possible factors are a function of terroir; interesting.

After tasting some non-commercial wines from Bodega Catena Zapata, Dr. Catena summarizes the importance of research in producing easy-drinking and low-cost wine; “…such wines have the potential of lift the economies and livelihoods of entire communities where adaptable grapes are grown in abundance.”

The University of Chicago published a study in 2015 by Matt Wood that addressed the importance of microbiomes on wine’s taste. They found that most bacteria in the grapes originated from the soil, and the microbiome, or bacterial community, of the plant differs depending on the microbiome of the surrounding soil, even among the same stock of vines grown just a few miles apart; i.e. terroir.

Research is now finding that terroir is not just about climate and soil type.  Microbiomes within the soil of a specific AVA and terroir contributes significantly to taste and health of vines.  As climate conditions change (even within each season) this information is important to the industry relative to disease resistance, drought tolerances and grape cluster yields per acre. Mr. Giles Martin the winemaker at Sparkling Points Wines pinpointed the importance of research on soils and terroirs, “When you’re a winemaker and you’re blending grapes from different vineyards in your region to create your perfect wine, then those very subtle influences (in microbiomes) have a big impact.”

Next time you read a wine label pay a little attention of the AVA listed on the label, it is becoming important information.

Dr. Laura Catena's research

Where great wine research starts.

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