I participated in West London School of Wine’s online guided tasting ‘Wines with Altitude’ on the 18th May 2021. The tasting featured a variety of wines from Argentina’s oldest continuously operating winery, Bodega Colomé (since 1831) and was hosted by their chief winemaker Thibaut Delmotte. Tim Atkin MW has recently classified Bodega Colomé as a “first growth” producer. Wow! That’s quite an honour!
Bodega Colomé is located in the northwestern province of Salta. It was founded in 1831 by Nicolás Severo de Isasmendi who was the Spanish governor of Salta. During this time, the vineyards were planted in Torrontés and Criolla Chica (Mission Grape), which were producing very simple table wines. However, the popularity of French wine was growing and in 1854, his daughter Ascensión, who was married to José Benjamín Dávalos, travelled to France in search of varietals that would make higher quality wines. She returned to the estate in 1856 with the first French pre-phylloxera Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon vines, as well as some white varietals. That’s some serious dedication; all in the name of grapes and wine! To this day, grapes from the original vines planted in 1856 are still used to produce Bodega Colomé Reserva wines. After having been in the Isasmendi-Dávalos families for 170 years, Donald Hess acquired the estate in 2001. Impressed by the incredible sunlight, dynamic terroir and awe-inspiring heights, he set out to make exceptional ‘high altitude’ wines! Today, the estate is comprised of several vineyards; each with its own unique terroir.
LET’S TALK TERROIR
Vineyards within this area are planted at altitudes that range from 1700 to 3000 metres. Compared to Mendoza’s highest heights of 900m, the vineyards of Salta are exceptionally high! The reason they are located at such extreme heights is because this region is located along the Tropic of Capricorn and tropical conditions pervade at lower altitudes. In order to achieve the most desirable growing conditions for wine grapes, the vineyards must be planted at higher elevations to avoid humidity, excessive heat and disease pressure. This particular area is extremely dry with low annual rainfall and little snowfall during the winter months. There is also relatively low disease pressure due to these dry, arid conditions. However, due to a particular ant that damages the buds during budbreak in the spring, a sustainable viticulture programme is in place to manage this pest.
Growing grapes at such high altitudes definitely impacts them in ways that you won’t necessarily see at lower elevations. For example, the sun’s solar irradiation is much greater at these heights due to less protection from the ozone layer and as a result, the grapes develop thicker skins. Additionally, the greater range of temperatures lead to a prolonged period of ripening, yet this enables the grapes to develop fresher, more refined complexities. Finally, as this is a desert area, the soil isn’t very fertile, which means that the grapes have to develop deeper root systems to get the nutrients they need. This is ideal, especially when growing rather vigorous varieties such as Malbec, because it forces the vines to produce lower yields of fruit with more concentrated flavours and aromas.
ALL ABOUT THE WINE
Throughout the years, the Salta region has developed a reputation for producing incredible Torrontés wines. The high altitudes and wide temperature ranges enable the Torrontés grape to present itself at its best; floral aromas to die for combined with fresh, mouthwatering acidity. However, within the past 20 years, increasing demand for red wine has led to more red varietals being planted, mostly Malbec but also others such as Tannat, Bonarda and Pinot Noir.
Throughout the entire tasting, Thibaut conveyed a true passion for winemaking and dedication towards preserving the terroir within his wines. Each wine that I tasted was unique, truly reflected the goal of ‘high altitude’ wines; well balanced with concentrated, expressive complexities.
Bodega Colomé ~ El Arenal Lote Especial Malbec ~ 2017 ~ Salta, Argentina
After tasting six different wines, my favourite was the Bodega Colomé El Arenal Lote Especial 2017. At 2600m in elevation, Bodega Colomé’s El Arenal vineyard is considered to be one of the highest in the world. Extreme temperature ranges, a dry-arid climate and intense sunlight are definitively unique to vineyard’s terroir and contribute to the wine’s elegant complexities .
Immediately while pouring this wine, the deep, concentrated purple colour caught my eye. Thibaut explained that the ozone layer is weaker at such high altitudes and as a result, the grapes create thicker skins as protection from the intense solar irradiation. As a result, during the initial winemaking stages, more colour is extracted from the thicker grape skins, which leads to an intensely deep purple colour.
The aromas from this wine are so elegant and complex. Beautiful black fruits, subtle floral and herbal notes followed by sweet vanilla and a hint of raisin greeted me. On the palate, fresh acidity carried concentrated flavours of black cherry, black plum and peppery spices on a lengthy finish with a refined tannin structure. Even though this is a fuller-bodied wine, it doesn’t feel too overpowering. It’s refined, well-balanced and beautiful!
I can’t think of a better pairing for an Argentinian Malbec, than a sirloin steak. As this is a leaner cut, the incredible aromas, flavours and complexities of the Malbec wine are able to shine through without being overpowered by the meat.
Producer: Bodega Colomé
Colour: Deep Purple
Fruit: black cherry, black plum
Oak: vanilla and spices
Fruit development: dried raisin
Drinking Window: Can drink now or could benefit from further cellaring!