At last, the wine I saw taking shape four years ago is available on the international marketplace, a remarkably intense yet friendly red from 'the highest vineyard in the world' (though see The highest vineyards in the world – an update for some background to this claim).
Swiss businessman Donald Hess bought this extraordinary estate up in the Andes in the Argentine province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border in 2001. I saw the primitive and remote nature of it (and not a few condors) in the next year and was very excited about the potential of the vines here. Four hectares of them are ancient, twisted who-knows-what grapevines planted in 1854. A further 11 ha are planted with Cabernet and Malbec vines imported from Bordeaux pre-phylloxera and planted on their own roots. Hess is now planting more disciplined, modern vineyards higher and higher (gotta keep that claim to be the highest…) The assemblage is estimated at 66 per cent Malbec, 20 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 14 per cent Tannat, all farmed biodynamically.
So you have ancient vines, plus all that extremely intense sunlight in a completely unpolluted atmosphere, plus the sort of cool nights you get at between 2,200 and 3,015 metres above sea level (amazing!) – altogether a unique mix of ingredients. The previous owner of the estate, the wonderfully wily local farmer Davalos, was already making remarkable wines from the old vines, but in extremely primitive conditions and with very limited knowledge of modern oenology and consumer tastes.
Hess owns wineries in California (Hess Collection), South Africa (Glen Carlou) and Australia (Peter Lehmann) so has no excuse for making the very best of his unique Argentine ingredients. To my mind this Colomé Estate 2004 Valle Calchaqui succeeds brilliantly in combining the intensity and directness of the high-altitude flavours with modern accessibility. I found it quite hard to resist drinking now, but I can see that the wine should have a very promising future over at least five and possibly 10 years.
The only things that surprise me about the wine are
- the packaging, which is old-fashioned, but perhaps deliberately so, shades of Buenos Aires when it was glam, certainly no hint of Napa
- the fact that as far as I can see the wine, while being quite widely available in Europe and South America, is not (yet?) sold in the US
- and the price, just £12.99 at Oddbins. For once, I am surprised how cheap it is. And that's a first!
The vast Colomé estate, inhabited by hundreds of local Indians and with no electricity, telephone or even paved access when I visited, now has its own hotel. See more at www.bodegacolome.com.