What Argentina’s savvy winemakers have known for many decades—that certain vineyards reliably produce superlative wines despite vintage variations—is now scientific fact.
Researchers at the Catena Institute of Wine in Mendoza used a combination of chemometric data and sensory analysis to group a selection of Malbec
wines into distinctive regions and identify the specific vineyard site, or parcela, they hailed from with a high degree of certainty.
The study, which is the first of its kind, took its cue from smaller-scale research done in Burgundy and Valpolicella. But it went a step further in analyzing the phenolic profiles of renowned Malbec wines from 23 parcels distributed across 12 geographic indications in the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo—located at the foothills of the Andes Mountains at elevations of 900–1,600 meters—that were made under the same winemaking conditions over a period of three vintages: 2016, 2017, and 2018.
By using chemical data and statistical tools to avoid the vintage effect, researchers were able to clearly separate the wines by location and
identify distinct terroir signatures—something that wouldn’t be possible using the sensory data alone.
Not only did they predict the vintage of each wine, 48% of the parcelas studied could be identified by chemical analysis with 100% certainty and the remaining 52% could be identified with up to 83% certainty.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers developed fingerprints by matching the individual subregions and parcelas with 27 phenolic compounds in the wines, which included a dozen red pigments, yellow co-pigments, seed tannins, wood tannins, several antioxidants including resveratrol, and different floral aroma compounds.
The most interesting results were observed in the Uco Valley and the high-elevation subregion of Gualtallary in Tupungato, where the parcelas analyzed produced higher concentrations of key anthocyanins and seed tannin.
About 50% of the parcelas in the study belong to Bodega Catena Zapata and
the remainder to its contract growers. “Winemakers around the world can tell
you that there are differences in their terroirs,” says Dr. Laura Catena, managing director of the family estate, who founded the Catena Institute in 1995 to advance wine quality in Argentina.
Catena Zapata was the first winery to plant in Gualtallary in 1992; its high-altitude Adrianna vineyard sits at 1,450 meters, which is the limit for ripening Malbec. By 2002, Adrianna was the source of its finest fruit, and the winery now has 100 hectares under vine in the subregion.
“Adrianna is Winkler Zone I and sometimes Zone II,” says Catena, “but with
more sunlight hours and a longer growing season, we can ripen Malbec.” Pointing out that the study is a culmination of 20 years of research largely inspired by winemaking director Alejandro Vigil, who came to Catena in 2007 as a soil scientist, she adds, “Until now, we really didn’t know if Malbec
could transmit terroir to this degree.”