A Chat with Alejandro Vigil of Catena

Alejandro Vigil of CatenaAlejandro Vigil, a newly minted member of Decanter magazine’s Power List, is a legend in Argentina’s oenological community. As winemaker of Catena Zapata, he oversees the enormous and diverse production of one of the country’s biggest and most prestigious premium wineries – think Mondavi – as well as his own “El Enemigo” line. And speaking of Mondavi, this week Alejandro has been visiting wineries in California with an Argentine delegation. We caught up with him to explore his philosophy and the wines that are exciting him these days.

Argovino: For someone who doesn’t know your wines, what would be a good one to start with, that is to say, an introduction to your style, and why?

Vigil: The wine that describes exactly what we understand by “malbec” is the classic Catena Malbec. It has the perfect intensity and direction to get to know us and understand a good deal of our philosophy about making wine. If it doesn’t have the complexity shown by the high-level wines, it does have the spectrum of aromas and flavors to understand malbec and Mendoza.

Argovino: How have the goals of Argentine winemakers changed during, say, the past decade? Are they looking for something new in the grapes, or the same things as always?

Vigil: They’re changing day by day. Let’s think about the evolution of the past twenty years: We began with Italian-style wines with long barrel aging, oxidized and very light. Later we gradually went for those fruit bombs, very concentrated and sweet – let’s say very intense – and in the past few years we’ve left concentration aside and we’ve tried to translate the grapes from each region into wines that define a geographical identity. So the evolution is a permanent process.

Argovino: What were the key moments in your career as a winemaker, not just professionally but in your personal journey? Did you ever think about the possibility of working outside Argentina?

Vigil: The journey has been long and full of puzzles. The key point was when I decided to leave a government research group for the private sector; immersing myself in the production of top-flight commercial wines changed the structure of my thinking. Now, if I look back at what set the course or shifted the destination, it was my maternal grandfather, whose love for working the vineyards, producing wine, and drinking it I watched in silence since I was little – that made an impact on my character, on my senses, and in my life. Winemaking is a way of life that has as its premise contact with nature and love for the work. I’ve had a lot of chances to work outside Argentina, but it would be against my philosophy, which is based on the idea that to produce wines from a place you need to breathe the same air as the vine, suffer the cold and the heat, and feel a sense of belonging to that place. It’s very hard for me to think that someone can make wines without being part of where those grapes are produced.

Argovino: In the United States people are already in love with malbec, and this summer the wine shops are promoting torrontes as well. Beyond them, what grape or blend made in Argentina should consumers here be trying?

Vigil: We’ve spent many years at Catena working with chardonnay; I think we have great high-altitude wines that allow us to broaden the diversity of this most widespread grape variety. Cabernet franc is also a hidden gem that isn’t much known in the world, and without a doubt our great opportunity in the future is cabernet sauvignon and its blends with malbec that achieve a greater number of dimensions than any other wine made in Argentina.

Argovino: In Argentina they say that people make wine in every province, but only wines from Mendoza arrive in the United States in large quantities, followed by wines from Salta, San Juan, La Rioja, and Patagonia. What chances do the other provinces – Cordoba, La Pampa, Catamarca, etc – have for exports? Is there a less well known province where you’d like to make wine?

Vigil: The fact that Mendoza has the biggest number of vineyards and, as a result, wines has to do with the history of immigration in Argentina, but there are many terroirs discovered centuries ago that haven’t been developed. Cordoba, La Pampa, Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and Tucuman have great chances to grow and develop very competitive winemaking, given their culture and the qualities determined by the grape-climate interaction. In my case, I’m obsessed with vines from Chubut, in Patagonia; by new valleys that we are developing at high altitude in the province of La Rioja; and, going against the grain in Argentina, by low-altitude vineyards in La Pampa.

Argovino: That may be the world’s most wide-ranging terroir – wines from the province of the penguins all the way to the dry, hot steppe. We’ll look forward to tasting them. Salud!

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