Malbec, Bodega Colomé, Estate Malbec, Valle Calchaqui, Salta, Argentina. 2005. Biodynamic

When I think of Argentina I think of Colomé. This is one Argentina’s very best wines – benchmark Malbec at a great price.

Bodega Colomé is in Salta province, up near the Bolivian border in North West Argentina. This is the high Andes, a desert plateau at an amazing altitude for growing vines. Argentinean producers are very proud of their alt.credentials and so “mine is higher than yours” is a very big deal – you will see that altitude is frequently quoted on the back labels of Argentine wine bottles as a proxy for quality.

Colomé is the highest commercial vineyard in the world right now, at 3,002 metres or 9,849 feet. To put that into a UK perspective, take Ben Nevis and stack it on the top of Mount Snowdon – and that only gets you to Colomé’s lowest vineyard at 2,300 metres!

But why is altitude so important? Well, there is less atmospheric pressure and so less oxygen and carbon dioxide. Just as this affects humans so it does vines, and in both cases the mechanisms are still being researched. People first: altitude sickness can start for some at only 2,000 metres and is common by 2,400 metres, regardless of fitness or age. Symptoms range from feeling hung over (known as Soroche), to sleeping difficulties, an unshakeable cough, hyperventilation and finally fatal oedema. Acclimatisation cannot be rushed and descent is the only effective treatment. Meanwhile, vines get less carbon dioxide, which slows photosynthesis and retards ripening. But most importantly, the amount of UV radiation from the intense sunlight produces of thicker grape skins that contain hundreds of different complex phenolic compounds. Intense colour, fresh acidity and silky-smooth tannins in red wines is the result.

Colomé is hardly a new kid on the block. The original winery (of 4 ha) was founded in 1831 and so they also lay claim to being the oldest Argentinean vineyard still in existence. Another 11 ha of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1854, and these are still productive today – pre-phylloxera vines brought from Bordeaux, planted on their own rootstocks with low yields. Now add some more high quality credentials into the mix – snow melt irrigates the thin desert soils, there is a long growing season, clear skies mean hot days and cool nights and there’s no pollution, while little rain means an absence of fungal diseases, though ants are a pest.

The current Swiss owners (Hess group) understood this potential and bought the 39,000 ha property in 2001, which is when the big investment really started. As well as 70 ha of vines at Colomé and a further 40 ha planted elsewhere in Salta province, the Bodega also has 160 ha of cereals, fruit and animal farming – it’s a long way to town. Modern miracles like hydro electricity, the telephone and Biodynamics have been introduced, while self-sufficiency is completed by a new winery, hotel, art gallery and a Church.

As well as Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, red Syrah, Bonarda and Tannat and white Torrontés are also planted. The Estate Malbec 2005 featured here is actually a blend of 85% Malbec with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Tannat added for extra structure and complexity. Part of this blend is sourced from those old vines, the rest from more recent plantings. 50% is fermented in French oak, while 75% of it is aged for 15 months in French oak barrique (of which 30% are new barrels and the rest second-use).

In the glass, the wine has a dense, almost black core with a purplish-black rim and slow pinkish legs. The nose is a rich mixture of black fruits (black cherry, blackcurrant, blackberry and even blueberry) with an herbaceous and floral top note. The palate is rich and smooth and has finesse and fine wine complexity. Density and power are supported by a structure of velvet tannins and fresh acidity. The bold bright fruit flavours are bound into a seamless oak and savoury framework. This is a very long and satisfying wine, with dark chocolate, black pepper and coffee notes appearing as it opens up in the glass. Despite the big alcohol there is no heat, just a moreish concentration capable of dealing with powerfully flavoured food.

Those big flavours are a sure fire hit with Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings. Alternatively, Beef (especially big juicy steaks) is such a classic Malbec match that it’s almost a cliché.

Estate Malbec makes for great drinking now while so young and vibrant. However, thanks to attending a seminar in 2007 on how Argentinean Malbec can age in bottle I’d say this is a wine capable of developing well over the next 10 years with a great future ahead of it.

Widely available in the USA, I’ve seen listings from as little as $17.99. So raise a glass with me – to altitude.


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