Two Catena 2019 Malbecs, Mendoza

Two bottles shots of Catena Malbec and Catena Alta Malbec

Two Malbecs, both alike in dignity, in fair Mendoza, where we lay our scene.

Catena Malbec 2019 from 169 Swedish kronor, $14.97, €13.79, CA$23.99, 2,360 Japanese yen, £13.95, HK$148, 209.90 Norwegian kroner, AU$29.99, NZ$34.99, 19.50 Swiss francs, 950 New Taiwan dollars, SG$50, 179 Brazilian reais

Find the Catena Malbec 2019

Catena Alta Malbec 2019 from $18.99, €25.98, 33.50 Swiss francs, £29.75, 299.95 Danish kroner, 97 Barbados dollars, 7,216 Japanese yen, AU$104.49

Find the Catena Alta Malbec 2019

Whether you are planning an elaborate banquet or a simple backyard barbecue, Catena Zapata make a Malbec for it. This dependable Argentine producer vinifies at least 11 single-varietal examples, but we are focusing on two which, judging from their wide distribution, must be made in decent volume: Catena Malbec, which is the most affordable wine in their range, and the next step up, Catena Alta Malbec.

Both wines are the textbook definition of Mendoza Malbec with their royal purple colour, succulent plummy fruit, generous body and soft tannins that create the quintessential crowd-pleasing red. And while both are utterly delicious, they also illustrate the difference in concentration, complexity and ageability that comes with a higher price. There's no question that Catena Alta is the better of the two, although the description of how they are made hardly indicates why this should be the case. One is a blend of three vineyards, aged in oak for 12 months; the other is a blend from five vineyards, aged in oak for 18 months. 

Bottle shots of Catena Malbec and Catena Alta Malbec

The real clue to the quality differential is indicated on the label: Catena Alta is subtitled 'historic rows', which their website explains as follows:

'Nicola Catena planted his first Malbec vineyard in Mendoza in 1902. His grandson, Nicolás Catena, is known as the man who revolutionized Argentine wine and introduced high altitude Malbec to the world. Historic Catena Zapata vineyards are planted with the Catena family's proprietary selection of Malbec plants: the Catena Cuttings.'

The key, therefore, is vine age. Indeed, one of the sources of fruit for the Catena Alta Malbec, the Angélica vineyard, is featured in the Old Vine Registry as having been planted in 1924. The result in the glass is sumptuous, mouth-filling fruit with bitter-chocolate notes and the irresistible scent of new French oak. Across eight vintages, it scores an uncommonly high average of 17.2 in our database of tasting notes. Tam recently rhapsodised about the 2019 vintage, which I also tasted. It demonstrates all the power and intensity for which Malbec is renowned, as well as the layered complexity that reflects its noble raw material – and it really does belong as an accompaniment to fine food.

For around the half the price, its sibling, simply called Catena Malbec, delivers much of the same impressive flavour at lower intensity. The 2019 of this wine is, like the Alta Malbec, widely available, and it has the same easy drinkability and distinctive plummy fruit as its big sister. I would drink this slightly chilled, since the tannins are so pliable and, clichéd though this may be, there are few wines more ideally suited to casual barbecues.

Laura Catena at IMW Symposium

Not only is Catena the benchmark producer of Argentine Malbec, the fourth generation MD Laura Catena is a key figure in the world of wine. Her many accomplishments include having a fine collection of hats (she is often pictured in this red beret), winning the Old Vine Hero award last year, being honorary president of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and delivering the final keynote speech at the Institute of Masters of Wine Symposium in Germany last week (where the above selfie was taken, as seen on her Instagram feed).

It's a miracle she finds the time to create such masterful Malbecs, but we can be glad that she does. And wherever you are in the world, a bottle is never far from reach, according to Wine-Searcher's extensive results.

We have more than 1,100 reviews of Malbecs from Argentina in our tasting-note database.