Once upon a time, I went to Argentina looking for the good wine. Frankly I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when it came to Malbec. Most of the ones I had tasted here in the US were mediocre. Only a select few rose to the level of excellent, and none to the level of amazing. Yet there was a long stream of proclamations from various people (you know, the ones whose opinions “count” when it comes to such things) that Argentinean Malbec was the next greatest thing.
Scratching my head, I traipsed off to Argentina looking for the promised land. Or promised bottle, as the case may be.
And I found it. We had a lot of great Malbec while we were there, and really got a chance to appreciate the Argentinean skill at high altitude viticulture.
There was one wine region that we didn’t visit however, and we’ve been kicking ourselves ever since, as we’ve had several stunning wines from the province of Salta.
Tucked up in the northeast corner of Argentina, Salta is a wine region quite unlike any other. Its vineyards may very well be the highest altitude vineyards in the world, and its high-desert climate offers some of the greatest diurnal shifts (daytime-nighttime temperature changes) in the western hemisphere. Add to that a spectacular red rock, Wild West landscape, and you’ve got one of the most unique wine countries in the world.
And we missed it. A painful fact made all the more evident when a bottle like this one shows up at my door.
The land that is now known as Bodegas Colomé has been farmed since long before anyone kept written records. There were certainly well established farming communities of natives when the tendrils of the Incan empire reached down into the valley in the 15th century. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the area was so well populated and organized it took them 90 years to gain control of the valley. In the course of their conquest at some point vine grapes were first planted, and the area has had some level of grape cultivation ever since.
Bodegas Colomé now farms some of the oldest vines in Argentina. Significantly younger than 16th century, but 150-year-old pre-phylloxera, own-rooted Malbec and Cabernet vines are nothing to sneeze at. The estate’s 250 acres of vines from old French cuttings also hold the claim of being some of the highest altitude vineyards in the world, with the highest being a staggering 9891 feet above sea level. As if ancient vines and near alpine conditions weren’t enough to distinguish their grapes, Bodegas Colomé also farms their vineyards Biodynamically. The natural yields from these vineyards rarely top 1.6 tons per acre, and the oldest vines provide a miniscule .6 tons per acre of fruit.
The winery was founded in 1831, most likely by the governor of Salta province at the time. His daughter was responsible for the planting of the vines imported from Bordeaux, which have been farmed continuously by her descendants ever since, making the winery the oldest continuously operated producer in all of Argentina. In 2001 the winery was purchased by Donald Hess and his Hess Group company, a Swiss corporation that owns the Hess Collection winery and art museum in Napa.
This wine is made from 85% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Tannat, all grown at altitudes between 7475 and 9850 feet above sea level. A portion of the Malbec that goes into this blend comes from the circa 1854 vines on the estate. The grapes were hand harvested in very small groups (25 pound boxes) and sorted by hand before destemming and crushing. Because of the high altitude, fermentation takes longer to begin with, but in addition to a sloooooow fermentation, the grapes were given a 25 to 30-day cold extended maceration period before fermentation was allowed to commence. 50% of the wine was then transferred to French oak barrels where it underwent a secondary fermentation, with the other 50% undergoing the same fermentation in tank. These two lots were then blended together and aged in French oak (30% new) for 15 months before bottling.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Opaque, inky garnet in the glass, this wine has an explosive nose of cassis, blueberry, and brittle graphite aromas. In the mouth it is scary-smooth, luscious and sexy on the palate with deep fruit flavors of cassis, blueberry and dark chocolate which are made more interesting by a supple tannic structure that bulges beneath the surface. The wine lingers for a long time in the back of the palate, tantalizing and fantastic. For some reason the wine makes me want to channel James Brown: Baby! Help Me! Please! (gyrate your hips as needed). If you personally need a wine to prove to you that Malbec can be hot shit, this is a very likely candidate.
Can I get a plateful of grilled blood sausage please! Where’s that confounded bridge?
Overall Score: 9/9.5
How Much?: $30
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.