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 every time I try a new wine from Salta.
This wine, however, is not new to me. Ever since I tried the 2005 vintage, I’ve been a fan of Bodega Colome.
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 more than 8500 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, 8% Tannat, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Syrah, and 2% Petite Verdot all grown at altitudes between 5500 and 8500 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.
Having tasted this wine every vintage for several years, I can say that it is becoming a little more serious. Cabernet has been dialed back and replaced with Tannat, which is giving the wine a more tannic edge. While I don’t love this 2008 as much as I have some other vintages in the past, this wine remains one of the most consistent values from the region.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of rich cassis aromas with a hint of burnt match. In the mouth, leathery tannins wrap around a core of cassis, cocoa powder, and a deep graphite and wet dirt flavor that rumbles around in the basement of the palate for a while. Cassis and the texture of the tannins linger on the finish. A young wine, that will likely improve for a couple years in the bottle. 14.9% Alcohol.
If there’s one thing to eat with the rich red wines of Argentina, it’s beef. How about charred rib-eye shish-kabobs with red onion, bell peppers, and mushrooms?
Overall Score: between 8.5 and 9.
How Much?: $24
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.