Back in the early days of the California Gold Rush, there was a saying: “Go West, young man. Go West!”
In 1996, Donald Hess, owner of The Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley, heard a different version of the saying, as he was looking for a different type of gold. So he headed south, very far south.
Donald’s quest to find a unique parcel of land to grow fruit for his new vision took him to a remote and rugged section of Argentina’s Northern Calchaqui Valley, where some vineyard sites could top 10,000 feet in elevation.
He settled on the Colomé, a winery whose roots can be traced back to 1831 and boasts some of the highest vineyards in the world. It is the oldest continually producing winery in Argentina. Here, Argentina’s two most popular grapes, malbec and torrontés, thrive in the sustainably farmed vineyards.
Alongside Bodega Colomé’s rich history, Hess also created Amalaya, a project that started out on an experimental basis as part of Colomé but eventually evolved into its own distinct winery. Amalaya, which translates to “hope for a miracle” in the native language of the area, is quite appropriate, since it seems that it would take a miracle to get anything to grow, let alone grape vines, in a region where the altitude alone presents its own challenges. But due to the vineyard’s almost desert-like northerly location, the fruit is exposed to warm days and very cool nights, which allows the fruit to reach full ripeness while developing wonderful acidity. This combination preserves the freshness of the fruit in the wines.
Bodega Amalaya’s winemaker, Jorge Noguera, was recently in the D.C. area to walk me through these high-wire wines. His passion for working with high-altitude fruit is obvious, as he points out how weighty many of his wines are while also providing great value.
At 7,200 feet in elevation, the Calchaquí Valley fruit for the 2018 Bodegas Colomé Torrontés produces a wine that is at home alone in a hammock or riding shotgun with an assortment of shellfish. It has fresh and lively aromas of acacia flowers, jasmine, peach and grapefruit. Abundant acidity keeps the bright flavors of tropical fruits, nectarine and citrus fresh on the tongue and crisp on the finish. $12
The 2017 Bodegas Amalaya Gran Corte Malbec Barrel Selection is a blend of malbec, cabernet franc and tannat that is fermented in concrete and then aged in used French oak barrels. This neutral approach to winemaking really allows the fruit to shine through with aromas of black cherry, black plum and violets on the nose. The flavors of ripe plum, blackberry fruit and earthy red berries are laid out on a body of fine tannins that provide body and balance. Notes of dried herbs and red licorice on the finish makes me smile. $20
If you want to see how high you can climb with malbec, then you have to try the 2017 Bodegas Colomé Estate Malbec, which is a blend of four different vineyards from four different elevations, including 5,900 feet (5%), 7,500 feet (65%), 8,200 feet (25%) and 10,200 feet (5%). The latter is from the highest elevation malbec vineyard in the world. The grapes chosen for this wine go through a rigorous selection process in the vineyard and the winery. After vinification, the wine is aged for 15 month in 15%new French oak barrels. At first, the wine is soft and seductive, but explodes with layers of black and red fruit as it makes its way toward the back of the tongue. Notes of tobacco and savory herbs accent the long, powerful finish, where just the right touch of vanilla pops in to bring it all together. $22