In the final dispatch from Argentina, Decanter's tastings director Christelle Guibert climbs 3000m to visit the highest vineyard in the world
This is the end of our trip. While Sarah Kemp and Christabel Lemke are saying goodbye to Argentina, I have another few days of sunshine and Torrontes.
I’m on my way to visit the highest vineyard in the world: Colomé. Getting there is both an ordeal (especially if you suffer from vertigo and back problems) and an amazing experience. The four-hour drive in a 4 x 4 goes up to 4,000 metres above sea level and takes us through a range of scenery – from wild open mountains, multi-coloured rocks, and dry river beds and vast fields of cactus.
With over 300 days of sunshine and an arid 120mm of rain a year, Colomé is a world apart; the 39,000 ha at 2,000m above sea-level is planted with 75ha of biodynamic vineyards of which 11ha are pre-phylloxera vines, the rest is just desert. The estancia also has a hotel, a restaurant with food sourced from the Colomé farm, and 20 horses.
Thibault Delmotte, the Burgundian resident winemaker, took me on a tour of the vineyards and cellar with a fascinating barrel tasting from the different plots. The Colomé range includes the first label, Amalaya, from grapes sourced in Cafayate; the Estate and Reserve lines, some special lots of Syrah and Tannat and some bespoke blends for Marks & Spencer and the Gaucho restaurants.
Torrontes, when overripe, can be a “one glass only” wine but the 2010 Torrontes is spot on, no sickly aromatic characters but an elegant nose of delicate florals and a nice purity and freshness. The 2009 Amalaya is exactly what you expect from a first label –full of pure fruit, well-balanced and very enjoyable to drink. The 2007 Estate Malbec has deep fruit and complexity with a direct freshness, fine tannins and minerality.
The 2008 Reserve Syrah is a step ahead, but don’t be put off by the16% alcohol, the wine has concentration and power with a richness of fruit but still an amazing freshness from the acidity to support and balance the alcohol.
Over dinner, we tasted Colomé’s wines side by side with its neighbouring producers and I must say Colomé’s have an extra dimension; they showed much more freshness, minerality and purity of fruit. Is it due to the altitude or the soil? I’d say both.
The day of my visit, the Colomé team was waiting for the arrival of four ant doctors. Ants are a nightmare at Colomé. They ravage the vineyards by cutting the young leaves from the vines – they’ve cost the company $500,000 so far. At the moment there are 11ha of vines are not producing because of ant damage. The ‘A-team’ is going to spend the next few weeks in the vineyards studying the ant behaviour and hopefully come up with a magic potion.
The next day I went to see the new venture: Altura Maxima. At 3,111m above sea level, this is the highest vineyard on the planet, although not commercially in production yet.
In 2003, Donald Hess added the 25,000ha of desert to his portfolio, two-and-a-half hours north of Colome. On my arrival, I was welcomed by Caspar Eugster, the Swiss-born viticulturist. He’s the caretaker of the 25ha vineyards which have just been planted with Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Torrontes and some Pinot Noir.
This estate is even more secluded than Colomé, only 4 people live there with the local villagers, a few llamas and millions of cacti. The Pinot Noir plot, called La Joya (‘the jewel’) by the locals, is proving the most challenging.
Caspar is learning to deal with vine threats such as wild donkey, wild hare but worst of all, ants and frost. This year, they managed to save some grapes and made six bottles of Pinot Noir; according to Caspar, the result is very promising. I guess that is what keeps him going.
In 2009 Colomé opened the James Turrell museum – the first in the world entirely dedicated to the renowned American artist (fans make pilgrimages here just for the museum). It contains nine light installations including a skyspace and some drawings of his latest project, the volcanic crater in Arizona. The exhibition, a labyrinth of light, left me disorientated but strangely calm.
Driving back to Salta, we were stuck behind a Colomé lorry. There is no way around it: every single bottle of Colomé wine has to survive that four-hour unpaved road journey before they are shipped around the world. My Colomé trip will stay in my memory for a very long time and next time I’m enjoying a bottle of the estate Torrontes, I will raise a glass to the dedicated team at the top of the Andes.
Written by Christelle Guibert