You're never far from a cactus in Argentina: at Finca Colomé (left and centre); at Altura Máxima (right)
There is much more to Argentine wine than Mendoza and Malbec – some of the very best things are happening in a far-off place at an altitude that was not even a pipe dream until this century – let alone on my bucket list.
Christoph Ehrbar, chairman and CEO of The Hess Group, owner of Grupo Colomé, with vineyard manager (and asado maestro) Rafa in the 3111m Altura Máxima vineyard
“I don’t like being dictated to by German bureaucrats a long way away. We feel we know best what to do. We do what is best for the vines.” Christoph Ehrbar, the Swiss chairman and chief executive officer of the Hess Group, is explaining his decision to give up Demeter biodynamic certification, while continuing to farm the 140 hectares of vineyards at Bodega Colomé in Argentina biodynamically.
To say that where we are is a long way away from Demeter HQ in Germany is to understate it. This isn’t just Argentina, it’s the Upper Calchaquí Valley in Salta Province, in the remote far north of the country close to Bolivia. From Buenos Aires, it’s a two-hour 20-minute flight to Salta city and then a five-hour drive to Finca Colomé, 230 km to the southwest through spectacular terrain – rugged, vertiginously high, arid, inhospitably craggy, often red-earthed and punctuated with cacti and vicuna (both protected species).
In clouds as thick as sheepskin on the Cuesto del Obispo in the remote Calchaquí Valley: northern Salta's distinctive red soils, the tiny Capella San Rafael and the sign that marks its height, 3457m asl
Or it would be five hours’ drive if we were going straight there, but we head first to another Colomé estate vineyard, Finca Altura Máxima, stopping on route at a soaring 3,457m asl on the Cuesto del Obispo, stepping out to feel the air and to admire the tiny chapel of San Rafael, but there’s no admiring breathtaking views today. The clouds are as thick as sheepskin, but not as warm: it’s mid-morning in the summer and it’s 6ºC.
We continue to the Payogasta area, where the 26-ha Altura Máxima vineyard lies at 3,111m asl. It’s been on my bucket list since I first heard about it a decade or more ago. Who cares that it’s no longer the highest vineyard in the world, that there’s a higher one closer to the Bolivian border in Jujuy province and another in Tibet at over 3,500m? Altura Máxima is the most important commercially and I’m walking through rows of Pinot Noir vines, the grapes healthy and almost fully ripe (they’re currently 20º Brix and French winemaker Thibaut Delmotte is looking for 22º). Argentina’s second highest mountain, the 6,380m Nevado de Cachi, faces me, there are two condors gliding languorously overhead and the light is exceptional.
Bodega Colomé winemaker Thibaut Delmotte (and dog) in the 3111m Altura Máxima vineyard looking towards Nevado de Cachi, Argentina's second highest mountain
Donald Hess, father-in-law of Christoph Ehrbar and founder of the Hess Collection in Napa Valley, bought the land – just shy of 27,000 hectares – in 2004 and started planting vines the same year. He had already established a vineyard in Payogasta, El Arenal at 2,600m, after locating unknown underground water using a water diviner. The locals said he was ‘loco’ – mad. They said it again when he bought the land he named Altura Máxima. Perhaps there were times when he began to wonder himself. It wasn’t until the 2012 vintage that they had a wine they were prepared to release: Altura Máxima Malbec.
"We thought of giving up – until we saw the quality of the 2012 vintage"
The intervening years had been a constant struggle. “We were so frustrated,” says Thibaut Delmotte, winemaker for Bodega Colomé since 2005, “we thought of giving up – until we saw the quality of the first commercial vintage.” They planted 25 varieties because they didn’t know what would work best. Essentially, three have been retained: Malbec, of which there are now 20 ha, Pinot Noir in the highest block (3.5 ha) and Sauvignon Blanc, which they were not expecting to be so successful (2.4 ha). They are also now trialling some Chardonnay.
Winemaker Thibaut Delmotte in Altura Máxima: checking almost ripe pergola-trained Malbec (left) and brix levels in Pinot Noir in a refractometer (right)
The infinite challenges include the lack of human resources in a place so extreme and remote and the absence of infrastructure. Everything has to be brought in by road (often more rough track than road). The grapes, which are picked into small plastic crates by local people, have then to be loaded onto lorries for the four-hour drive to the winery at Colomé. Altura Máxima is not on the grid (hardly surprising), so has to be entirely self-sufficient in energy. Even Finca Colomé was only attached to the grid last November.
In terms of viticulture, hail is a huge problem and they’ve invested in expensive hail nets, but they can’t afford to do the same at El Arenal, their vineyard where Donald Hess first planted in 1999. Frost is a serious problem too (including in 2008, 2009 and 2016), which is addressed in part by pergola training for significant sections of the vineyard, with VSP (vertical shoot positioning) for the rest. There’s only 150mm rain a year and only in winter, so irrigation – by hydropower – is the reality from March to December. At the same time, the water is very hard and chalky – another challenge. Yields, inevitably, are low. So far, bush fires have not been a problem, "but I live in fear," admits Christoph Ehrbar.
Beautiful soil, radiant sun
On the plus side, Altura Máxima has “beautiful soil, granite with clay and some sand,” says Delmotte. The sunlight levels result in thick-skinned grapes and wines of deep colour, aroma, flavour and high antioxidant levels. The diurnal temperature range of 20–25º produces ripe grapes with their fragrance and acidity intact and prolongs the growing season, giving time for the tannins to refine. And isolation and virgin soils means that there is no phylloxera, so about a third of all the vines across the Colomé vineyards (Finca Colomé at 2,300m, Altura Máxima, El Arenal, and La Brava at 1750m) are on their own roots, which the team thinks results in better, more balanced wines. Similarly, there are no nematode problems.
"Leafcutter ants put paid to biodynamic certification. They can eat a young vine in a single night"
Rabbits, parrots and foxes are pests (the parrots favour Pinot Noir, although it’s the seeds they want, so they discard the flesh and skins) and foxes are apt to ignore the containers of water put out for them at the edge of the vineyards and gnaw the hoses in the vineyards instead. But these are tolerable pests. Leafcutter ants are something else. It was these that put paid to biodynamic certification, although the vineyards are still run biodynamically.
Leafcutter ants can eat a young vine in a night. Colomé was losing about 30% a year, which was costing “a seven-digit figure in lost sales,” says Ehrbar. They consulted all over the world, they brought professors in, but no one had a solution. So they did the pragmatic thing: used pesticides in the ants’ nests, especially in spring when the ants are most destructive, and relinquished their biodynamic certification.
Has it been worth it? This year, their twenty-second, they’ll break even for the first time after two decades of investing in Bodega Colomé. And the quality of the wines speaks for itself. Altura Máxima Malbecs are powerful and intense with insistent fruit – blackberries, blueberries, plums – aromatic spicy notes and sometimes violets; they’re precise and structured but with fine-textured, effortless tannins, seamlessly integrated oak (after 24–27 months’ ageing in used French barrels) and a freshness and energy that surely comes from the altitude.
The essential post-tasting asado, prepared at Altura Máxima by vineyard manager Rafa
Altura Máxima Tasting
I tasted the five vintages released so far – 2012 to 2016 – plus test batches of 2018 in the winery. Both 2017 and 2018 were good growing seasons and in 2018 they had the benefit of an optical sorting machine for the first time, described by Christoph Ehrbar as a “Ferrari”. All vintages have been fermented (the alcoholic fermentation at least) in stainless steel until now, but Thibaut Delmotte says that if he was asked today he would say he wanted some concrete. They have some concrete tanks at their other Salta winery, Amalaya, just south of Cafayate, and Delmotte is experimenting with concrete eggs, both epoxy-lined and unlined, at Colomé. I tasted four differently fermented and aged versions of 2018 Altura Máxima Malbec, including one that had been fermented and aged in an egg for 11 months before being transferred to stainless steel.
With the exception of the 2012, which is rounder and softer than subsequent vintages, and drinking well now, all should last for 15 years.
2013, a cool year: retains its lovely freshness, with floral notes and aromatic herbs around black fruit, touches of savoury roast game and liquorice, and powder-fine tannins.
2014, the product of a very good growing season: has warmth, richness and concentration, deep black fruit and herbal freshness.
2015, another comfortable, balanced growing season: creamy, round and elegant with floral and blueberry fruit, a hint of fresh orange peel, silky tannins and great length.
2016, a trickier year, with a serious frost, but the outcome is promising: fragrant and floral with intense dark fruit, a chalk-dust texture, youthful notes of black pepper, herb and liquorice and, despite its youth, no angles or edges.
New and old: new concrete-egg fermenters; the original 1831 winery; the museum devoted to the works of contemporary artist James Turrell
Some other highlights, including Lote Especial wines made from small vineyard parcels:
2018 Colomé Estate Torrontes
From 30–60-year-old vines in sandy soils with gravel layers at 1,700–2,300m. Fermented slowly (30–35 days) in stainless steel; unoaked. Brightly floral aromas and a palate packed with fresh lychee and spice flavours, supple, round texture and crisp grapefruit finish.
2018 Lote Especial Sauvignon Blanc
From Altura Maxima at 3000m. 25% aged in French oak barrels, mostly fourth use, but one new barrel, for eight months. 3,200 bottles. Ripe citrus fruit flecked with fresh herb and asparagus; supple texture and crisp minerality.
2017 Lote Especial Misterioso Vino Blanco
From Finca Colomé at 2,300m, a field blend of very old vines, almost certainly mostly Semillon. Lively and ‘winey’ rather than fruity in flavour; succulent, supple and rounded, yet structured. (Sold at the cellar door only.)
2017 Lote Especial Pinot Noir
From Altura Maxima at 3000m. Aged in fourth-use barriques for 12 months (18 months hitherto; and this year they have put some of the 2019 in an unlined concrete egg). Delicately perfumed with fresh, pure red fruit and a silky texture integrating fine-knit tannins. Bright and luminous in character.
2017 Lote Especial Bonarda
From Finca La Brava, south of Cafayate and the Amalaya winery, at 1,700m. Aged in oak barrels for 10 months. Expressive, full-bodied Bonarda with black cherry fruit, spice and fresh herbs and soft, ripe tannins.
2017 Lote Especial Syrah
From Finca Colomé at 2,300m. 18 months in oak. Powerful and focused, with bright, fresh, raspberry fruit, white pepper and orange peel crispness and ripe tannins.
2017 Lote Especial Tannat
From Finca La Brava at 1,700m. Fragrant with violets and sweet black fruit. Full, round, intense and fresh with mellow tannins.
2017 Lote Especial Malbec, El Arenal, 2600m
Floral and fresh saline-mineral aromas. Cassis fruit of chiselled purity with a liquorice undertow and persistent fine tannins.
2016 Colomé Estate Malbec
A blend from all four estate vineyards from 1,700m to 3,100m. 15 months in French oak. Opulent but fresh blackcurrant and sweet plum intensity, with crunchy black pepper and aromatic spices, fine-grained tannins and spicy, mineral length. Power with elegance.
2016 Colomé Autentico Salta Malbec
From vineyards more than 100-years-old at Finca Colomé and made in a traditional style without cultured yeasts, with regular pigeage and no oak. Dark, powerful, concentrated and fruit-driven, with ebullient plummy fruit, peppery spice and papery tannins.
Finca Colomé vineyard manager Andres lying on a 188-year-old Mission vine, a bunch of its grapes and (right) an old and impressively healthy looking Malbec vine
Finca Colomé – the beating heart
Donald Hess, of the Hess Collection, Napa Valley, bought Finca Colomé in 2001, but what is astonishing when you consider the remoteness (the nearest town, Molinos, is 20k away and Salta, should you have forgotten, is five hours’ drive north) is that this is Argentina’s oldest working winery. It was established in 1831 by the Spanish Governor of Salta. Mission (aka Criolla) vines planted back then are still producing. The first Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in 1854 by the Governor’s daughter and grapes from three of the vineyards (four hectares) are still used in wines today.
What is also astonishing is the scope of Finca Colomé. It’s not just vineyards and a winery, it’s a food-producing farm with horses, sheep, goats, cows and an organic vegetable garden. More importantly, it's a 400-strong community – most of the adults employed at Bodega Colomé – living in adobe houses they build themselves, with schools, a church (built for them by Donald Hess) and a project this year to give them land of their own so that they can be more self-sufficient. There’s also a delightful nine-roomed hotel, Estancia Colomé and a museum dedicated to the work of American artist James Turrell.
Finca Colomé: walking through a boulder-strewn stream between vineyards; harnessing the power of a waterfall; the terrace of the tasting room and shop
Dramatic, rocky outcrops on the road from Molinos to Cafayate
Amalaya – organic in its sights Three hours' drive south from Finca Colomé at Cafayate is a vineyard, Las Mercedes, which is set to be certified organic in 2020, thanks to the absence of leafcutter ants – absent because, when Grupo Colomé bought the vineyard in 2010, it was virgin land with sandy soils that could be cleaned up before planting. It lies at 1650m alongside a winery bought in 2009 and renamed Amalaya, which means 'hope for a miracle' in the language of the extinct Calchaquí tribe (and was the name Donald Hess originally used for his first Salta investment, El Arenal vineyards). There are also two older, smaller and slightly higher vineyards to the south: San Isidro, which has very rocky soil (big stones), and La Brava, which has fractured, rocky soils and is used for Colomé. Las Mercedes was acquired in 2010 for logistical regions – a lot of production was being concentrated in the newly acquired winery there.
Amalaya's Las Mercedes vineyard, winemaker Jorge Noguera and the strong contemporary branding
At one time Amalaya was used as a label for declassified Colomé, but it now stands in its own right, for red wines fermented in epoxy-lined concrete tanks and variously aged in French and American oak barrels and for white wines fermented in stainless steel (there's also a rosé and a charmat method sparkling). The style is essentially fruit-driven and includes a crisply aromatic but supple 2018 Calchaquí Valley Torrontes / Riesling (85:15) with lime and lychee fruit, and a 2017 Calchaquí Valley Malbec, partly aged in used French oak and brimming with violets, rounded black fruit and black pepper spiciness. But the range is not devoid of complexity. The 2017 vintage of the flagship Corte Unico, a barrique-fermented and aged, single-vineyard (San Isidro) Malbec with 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, is powerful and polished with fine tannins and intense cassis and blackberry fruit.
Empanadas – as crucial as the steak at any asado, and on most other occasions too. This was, appropriately, the very last photo I took on my trip to Argentina, of which Salta was only one part.
Wine stockists: Liberty Wines (libertywines.co.uk) is the UK importer of Grupo Colomé (Bodega Colomé and Amalaya) and can be contacted using the online form or on 020 7720 5350 for retail stockists. Note that it doesn't import every wine.
Photographs by Joanna Simon