Is Winemaking an Art or a Science?

By Laura Catena, Managing Director of Alamos Wines and author of Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina

The title of this post is a question I asked myself twenty years ago when I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in biology and headed back to Mendoza to see what my father had conjured up in my absence. He was a third generation winemaker with a mission to make wine from Argentina that would stand among the best in the world. His canvas was the Andes Mountains, his color the dark purple Malbec. Nicolas Catena -- mi papa -- set out to change a 400-year-old industry in the fifth largest wine-producing country in the world: Argentina.

Science told him that he should seek cooler climates toward the Andes Mountains if he was to make richer wines with vibrant aromas and dense, age-worthy tannins. I spent those early years as research director, studying the soils, the climate and plant selections called "clones." The wines we made from these remote, high-altitude vineyards were indeed vibrant, and -- like works of art -- when the critics reviewed them favorably, they sold.

One day, I found myself tasting one of our wines -- the Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino -- at the family winery with a group of friends. I told them the story of my grandfather, Nicola Catena, who sailed to Argentina from Italy at the young age of 18 in 1898. As I pictured him sitting alone in the transatlantic ship, I tasted the salt of his nostalgia and the deep, velvety Malbec tannins.

I understood why wine is different from any other beverage, and why winemaking is more an art than a science. From the winery owner's imprint on the label to the reality that every vineyard row in the world produces grapes with a different aroma and flavor, how could a scientist reign in such rebellious acts of nature?

It gave me great relief to come to this realization. Studies have shown that, when blinded, even the most experienced wine tasters give different reviews of the same wine depending on their mood or the time of day. Everybody has experienced being dazzled by a wine tasted in a romantic setting -- think fire-lit rooftop of Cavas Wine Lodge in Mendoza -- only to be less impressed by the same wine being consumed in another setting.

Today, when I make the blends for my family's wines, I sit with our enormously talented and fidgety head winemaker Alejandro Vigil, who comes from a family of artists, and we taste and talk while we make the blends. I know that rocks in the soil don't make a wine more mineral, but there is an earthiness to our Angelica Vineyard's lot 18 Malbec fruit that tastes like rocks and clay, and it doesn't matter to me what the science says. I just love this wine, and we are definitely going to include it in the blend.

I invite you to leave your rational minds behind and take an artist's tour of Argentina and its wine country. Start in Buenos Aires at the Museo de Bellas Artes near Recoleta, where you will see classic Argentine and foreign collections, as well as some of the most promising emerging Argentine artists. Catch an Opera at the Teatro Colón and delight in the spectacular ceiling painted by one of Argentina's most revered artists, Raul Soldi.

Take the flight to Mendoza (90 minutes) and stay at one of the bed & breakfasts in Chacras de Coria (15 minutes by car from downtown Mendoza) where you can have your morning coffee at Museo Mucha and ask them to arrange a visit to a local artist's private home to view their collections.

On your way to wineries in Luján de Cuyo, stop by La Casa de Fader Museum and take a look at El Baño, the artist-decorated bathroom in this unique museum that is dedicated to Mendoza's most famous artist. In Agrelo, stop by the Catena Zapata Pyramid (make a reservation a few weeks before you leave) and walk upstairs to the rooftop to delight in views of the never-ending countryside.

Head to the Salentein Museum in Tupungato (one hour from downtown Mendoza), where you will find a state-of-the-art museum with wine-related art. If you are staying in the city of Mendoza, take a half-day excursion to the La Rural Wine Museum -- Mendoza's most visited winery - for a self-guided tour into the history of Mendoza's wine industry. Clay wine casks, ancient presses and leather fermentation tanks, dating back to the 18th century, are all on display.

Head on Ruta 40 to the Southern Uco Valley and find your favorite snow-capped mountain view. Stop by the side of the road to meditate or stretch your legs while looking at the Andes Mountains. Visit my brother Ernesto Catena's Tikal vine labyrinth near the town of Vista Flores. Get lost and decide to never return to civilization (not open to tourists yet, but it might be in the future).

If you've ever had my family's Alamos wine, you will now understand why Alamos is indeed the Wine of the Andes. The snow-capped peaks on the label are the reason why the nights are cool. The Andean snowmelt used to irrigate the vineyards makes the Alamos wines pure, rich and authentic.

Let the wine transport you to high-altitude Mendoza; to a time, a moment or emotion in the past. You will discover the art of wine, and I'm afraid to tell you that you are going to want to plant your own vineyard in Argentina. If you must, there is a wonderful place, Vines of Mendoza, run by a group of yankees turned Argentines, where you can buy your own little piece of Argentine land, plant a vineyard and make your own version of Argentine wine art. ¡Salud!
Vino Argentino, Argentina's first US published wine country guide by Laura Catena can be found in bookstores throughout the USA and UK, and will soon be on Amazon's Kindle.

The Alamos portfolio of wines (which includes Torrontes, Chardonnay, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon) is available at retailers nationwide at a suggested retail price of $13 per 750ml bottle.