Having Lunch at the Highest Vineyard in the World (Sort of)

There are wine geeks and there are wine geeks. I am the first kind of wine geek (if that makes any sense), the one that writes about wine, spends almost all of his vacations traveling to wine regions, has far more wine than he needs at any given time in his cellar, and wonders what it would be like if he ever made the plunge and tried to make wine.

Then there is the other kind of wine geek–the one who actually goes out there and tries to make the best wine he or she can.

Even though I have never met the man, but Donald Hess is clearly the latter kind of wine geek. After making his fortune in mineral water in his native Switzerland, Hess purchased the old Christian Brothers property on Mount Veeder in 1978.

In the decades since, he has purchased other wineries in South Africa, Australia, and Argentina. The Argentinian winery, Colomé, which Hess purchased in 2001, is one of the oldest wineries in Argentina (it was founded in 1831), and also currently boasts the world’s highest vineyard, Altura Maxima, at over 10,000 feet.

Back in February, I was invited to lunch with Thibaut Demotte, the winemaker at Colomé since 2005, where we tasted through a number of Colomé wines, including a couple from the Amalaya label.

Colomé sounds like a fascinating place. It is 1200 kilometers north of Mendoza, close to Bolivia and Chile on the Tropic of Capricorn, which is why the vineyards are so high–if they were any lower, it would be far too warm to grow grapes suitable for quality wine. The highest vineyards in Napa are at 3200 feet and the highest in Europe top out at close to 4300 feet. At Colomé, the vineyards start at 5500 feet and go up to Altura Maxima at 10200 feet.

The altitude not only provides cooler temperatures, but it also exposes the vines to higher levels of solar radiation, which is believed to produce more healthy polyphenols in red wine. The elevation also seems to cause the grapes to develop thicker skins, resulting in more flavorful, aromatic, and (in the reds) tannic wines.

Amalaya (Incan for “hope for a miracle”) was started as a more entry level wine to accompany the more established Colomé brand, and most of the fruit comes from a piece of land that Hess came across when looking to plant new vineyards for Colomé. He eventually found a plot of land at 8500 feet that he thought might be perfect, but nothing grew there due to a lack of water. Perhaps from his experience with his family’s water business in Switzerland, Hess was convinced there was water on the property and s he went ahead and purchased it. Once he began drilling for water, the locals claimed he was hoping for a miracle and a few days later he got what he hoped for: not too far below the surface, he found water–tons of water.

I do not have a host of experience with Argentinian wines, but the wines we tasted that afternoon have caused me to put the region near the top of my “must drink more” list. Who knows? It may also make it onto this wine geek’s “must visit” list as well.

Amalaya Torrontes2015 Amalaya Torrontés-Riesling: Retail $12. 85% Torrontés, 15% Riesling. Thibaut says the Riesling “calms down the big fruit of the Torrontés” and why shouldn’t I believe him? It really works. Very Good. 87-89 Points. 

Colome Torrontes2015 Colomé Torrontés: Retail $18. 100% Torrontés. Torrontés is the only native grape to Argentina, according to Thibaut, and it produces big clusters with very high yields. The fruit for this wine comes from a higher, older vineyard with a lower yield (4 tons per acre). Picked two weeks later to lose some of the bitterness of Torrontés. A vibrant nose with melon and papaya, wonderfully bright with a lingering finish. Very Good. 88-90 Points.  

Amalaya Malbec2014 Amalaya Malbec: Retail $16. All estate fruit. 85% Malbec, 10% Cabernet, 5% Syrah. This is the largest production of all the Colomé/Amalaya wines with over 500,000 bottles produced. Only 1/3 of the wine sees any oak, with very little of it new, as Thibaut wanted an easy drinking wine. Smokey and meaty–I am surprised there is not much oak, as this certainly seems to have some oak induced heft. Nice acidity and spice, with a solid finish. Very Good. 87-89 Points. 

2013 Colomé Estate Malbec: Retail $30. Three altitudes: 5000 (10%), 7000 (65%), and 8000 feet (25%). Dark color. Higher altitudes mean more ultra violet rays resulting in thicker skins. Thicker skills mean darker wine. Picked mid-March to the end of May. Dark and even brooding with blackberry a go-go. Nice fruit but in an austere way, if that makes sense. Good balance and big acidity. Great with the steak. Outstanding. 89-91 Points.

Altura Maxima


2014 Colomé Auténtico: Retail $50. 100% Malbec. Inky, inky dark. One of the oldest vineyards in Argentina, planted in the 1830’s and is still own rooted. Trying to respect as much as possible the traditional method of making wine in the region, there is absolutely no oak so Thibaut lets the fruit hang to develop richer tannins. Wow. Big, fruity, and ripe. This is jammy and oh so good. But be warned: your teeth are going to get quite a bit darker. Outstanding. 92-94 Points. 

2012 Colomé Altura Maxima: Retail $120. Maybe not as dark as the Auténtico. Rose and violet dominate the nose: a really amazing sensation. On the palate “silky” is not apt. “Smooth” is an insult. I love words but I have few here, this is an amazing wine. Outstanding Plus. 95-97 Points. 



About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Malbec, Riesling, Torrontés, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Having Lunch at the Highest Vineyard in the World (Sort of)

  1. You should definitely visit Argentina! Mendoza is beautiful. Let me know if you need an interpreter. I am always looking for an excuse to go back 😉


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