One afternoon, while wending my way by car through the jagged outcroppings and deserted mountain ranges of northern Argentina, I passed a dusty turnoff and a small sign that read, if I recall correctly, "Colome: 28 km". If it hadn't been so late in the day, I would have taken a left to visit the winery that uses grapes from the world's highest vineyards. Fortunately for me - and for other Americans who haven't been to remotest Salta - Colome wines are now arriving in their numbers to our shores.
They are wines unlike anything else Argentina (or any other country) produces, for the simple reason that Colome's terroir is utterly unique. Salta is known for its enormous variations in temperature in the space of 24 hours: hot sun during the day and cold clear nights, with a range of 20 degrees Celsius or more. But go higher, and things become even more vexing for the vines. In fact, the growing season becomes so short that many varieties don't even mature in time.
Colome's journey to the literal summit of world winemaking started in 2003 with a trial of one hectare at two miles above sea level. "Quickly we found out that the long-cycle varieties were impossible to ripen," says Thibaut Delmotte, Colome's winemaker, who was recently in New York to introduce his latest selections. Cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot - essential elements of a Bordeaux blend - were out of the question. Instead, they planted pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and of course malbec.
These grapes take on qualities that are hard to find elsewhere. "There's not too much ozone in the atmosphere, so you have a lot of ultraviolet radiation, and the fruit has to protect itself," Delmotte says. "The only way is to produce thicker and darker skin." This is turn protects the more delicate aromas and acidity of the juice, Delmotte adds.
The vines need extra care, too, with grapes removed to focus the plants' energy on fewer fruit. "We have to do a lot of green harvest to really have good control of the yield," Delmotte says. And the wines that do result require gentle treatment throughout the winemaking process.
Today the 2012 Altura Maxima, Colome's new flagship wine, is made exclusively from grapes grown in Colome's highest vineyard. Delmotte ages it only in used oak; the wine is too delicate for new oak, he says. But even its entry-level Amalaya wines, now made in their own winery exclusively from estate-grown grapes, come from mile-high vineyards. To me, though, neither of these is Colome's most fascinating wine.
That title belongs to the 2014 Malbec Autentico, which comes to restaurants in the United States for the first time with the 2014 vintage. Even putting the effects of altitude and climate aside, it is a wine like no other. Its grapes come from ungrafted vines that average 90 years old, some of the oldest malbec in the country. It is aged only in stainless steel to allow the purest expression of these living relics. And it is one of the darkest, most beguiling wines to cross my palate since El Porvenir's tannats, which have a somewhat similar provenance.
It almost didn't happen. As Delmotte tells it, the wine resulted from a request by a London restaurateur to his friend Donald Hess, Colome's American owner. Hess called Delmotte and asked him to save some of the grapes from the harvest of Colome's old vines for an unoaked wine. "I said, 'Oh my God, Donald, I have almost all the wine in barrels, it's late in the season,'" Delmotte recalls with a laugh. He took what wine was left in the tanks and combined it with wine that had been in barrels only a week, then sent a sample to Hess. But the restaurateur was shocked to find out Hess had followed through.
Fortunately, he still put the wine in his restaurants and sold thousands of bottles. Now it's finally coming to us, down that long dusty road and then another 5,000 miles in transit. Salud!