1. Why I should be predicting the next pope.
2. Donald Hess's big investments in Salta -- 10,000 feet of hope
3. A few facts on Salta
4. The wines to celebrate Pope Francis's homeland
I may be a Jewish New Yorker, but I think I may have a psychic connection to this Catholic conclave thing. I mean, how many of those speculating on the next pope were at a super fabulous tasting of Argentinean wines from Salta, spot of the highest altitude vineyards in the world? I'm going to make a bold statement and say NONE. As I mentioned on Facebook, don't be surprised if they start calling me the Schneider Oracle and contact me when the next conclave meets. Just saying. (I'm kidding, in case you can't tell)
Because of the timely nature of the tasting and the fact that some of you may be celebrating Francis's rise and his nationality, I thought it only fair to turn this review around quickly so if you had Argentina on the brain you could run out to get these wines, which were pretty awesome.
Donald Hess's 10,000 Feet of Hope
I was invited by a friend who works for a distributor to have lunch with the brand representative for Colomé wines, which are distributed by Hess. Swiss-born (and therefore, I have to assume, altitude/ Alps loving) Donald Hess from Napa was one of the earlier American investors in Argentina and his real passion and interest was in grapes from the Salta region. After exploring the area largely on foot (that's dedication!), the guy found an old winery that had been in operation since 1831 in the Calchaqui Valley of the Salta province.
Hess wasn't messing around. He went all in, buying Bodega Colomé with its 6,000 - 10,00 feet vineyards. This is no small beans. Vineyards in that area need a lot of TLC and hand-labor. But he was determined and his team has stayed laser-focused, making only the big dogs of Argentina -- Torrontés and Malbec -- and doing it very, very well.
About 4 years ago, Hess bought another winery to increase production and produce a more affordable tier of wines called Amalaya. According to the adorable, passionate Martín Coscia -- the brand rep who tolerated my Spanish (I'll admit it, I'm close to fluent but not quite there...) -- these wines will be blends with a Torrontés and Malbec lead. Blending grapes may vary from year to year.
The winery is at a slightly lower altitude and was named Amalaya, which means "hope for a miracle" because as Hess was searching for a property for his winery, he was frustrated at the lack of water access. The locals used this native word to give him hope and when he encountered his ideal property, he found that his miracle was granted!
A Quick Word on Salta
The effects of altitude on the grapes that grow in this region is essential to know about. Here, grape skins grow extremely thick to protect the berries from sunburn as they ripen in the intense daytime heat of the mountains. I love wines from Salta because they have fruit and spice and acid and they are total anomalies when it comes to alcohol: they have high-ish alcohol but you'd never know it from the taste. The balance is outstanding.
As a side note, Cafayate, the main city in Salta, used to be a small, rural place with little to offer. But as wine and adventure travel have taken off, this city's main industry is now tourism. Dramatic landscapes -- mountains and desert that provide to make this a very attractive destination. The short of it: this is a dream destination and I want to go!!
Ok, now for a quick review of wines to celebrate Pope Francis:
If you know nothing about Torrontés, the first thing you should know is how Martín described it:
"Torrontés is like an Argentinean woman. She seems sweet, but she's NOT."
The grape is cross of the very aromatic Muscat d'Alexandria and the Criolla Chica grape, which was used to make sacramental wine in Argentina for centuries. Somehow, the cross of these two has made something outstanding and unique to this nation. The white, thick skinned grape needs very high altitudes to achieve great flavor, so the best come from Salta, specifically around Cafayate. Martín told us that ever Argentinean family drinks Torrontés with empanadas as they begin their Sunday family asadas (barbecues).
As a warning, if you don't like highly aromatic white wines, stand clear. This is a barn burner in the aroma department!
2010 Amalaya White
Grapes: 90%Torrontés, 10% Riesling
Color: Very light golden yellow.
Smell: Honeysuckle, honey, lemons, and gardenia flowers.
Flavors: Both Riesling and Torrontés have great acid profiles, so this wine had a great hit of acid (fabulous with the crab cakes) which offset the rich floral, honeyed flavors and the awesome taste of a warm sugar cookie, which I often find in Torrontés.
Colomé farms organically and mostly biodynamically. This link to the post that explains these terms but Martín had a great analogy for the difference between these two methods:
Think of organic viticulture like vegetarianism and biodynamic like vegans.
What a great representation of the difference between the agricultural techniques.
2011 Colomé Torrontés
Grape: 100% Torrontés
Color: This was a little more refined than the Amalaya. A very light, pale color.
Smell: Full-blown honeysuckle, jasmine, lemon creme smell. It was super aromatic and delicious. I could smell that all day long.
Taste: Similar to the smell with something that reminded me of a lemon creme pie, but not sweet! Torrontés is very deceptive in that it smells like a bowl of sugar and honey and ripe lemons but it's so acidic that it is great with food and goes a long way in infusing simple food with new, delicious flavors. A terrific Torrontés. One of the best I've had, by far.
And now to Malbec, which was brought to the region by the Governor's daughter (the Governor owned Colomé)in 1854. According to Martín, Colomé still uses some of those 150 year old+ vines for their wines.
We've done a podcast on Malbec, and one on Argentina that talks a lot about the grape so I won't go into detail now. To the wines...
2010 Amalaya Red Blend
Grapes: 75% Malbec, 25% is equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, and Syrah
Color: A very dark plum
Smell: Plum, blackberries, and dark flowers. It had a wet earth quality that I really liked too.
Taste: Although it tasted like coffee, earth, and some fruit and I found the tannin and acid to be pleasant, the wine had a very sharp edge to it that I didn't love. The acid was slightly out of whack with the fruit.
They should try a different blend of grapes next time. I think the Malbec component was good, but may have been clashing with other, more powerful elements (the rest of the stuff in the blend is highly tannic and flavorful and smacked down the softer, friendly Malbec a bit).
2010 Colomé Estate Malbec
Grapes: 85% Malbec, 15% is equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, and Syrah
Color: Rich ruby color
Smell: Dried strawberry and ripe raspberry aromas. The wine was very floral -- like violets -- and had a little peppery note to smell too.
Taste: Far better balanced than the Amalaya. It had a nice balance of the berry and red cherry flavors with spice and a little bit of damp earth flavor too. The tannins and acid were in better balance in this wine -- it tasted very bright. The altitude and grape quality definitely made a difference here.
2008 Colomé Malbec Reserva
Grapes: 90% Malbec, 8% Syrah, 2% Petit Verdot
Alcohol: 15.9% (VERY high)
Note: This is among the best Malbecs I've ever had. This is going on the list for great gifts to get for fruity red wine lovers.
Color: Nearly purple in color, on the swirl the wine stained the glass it was so dark.
Smell and flavor: Flowers, pepper, cinnamon, leather, ripe blackberry. black cherry, and black raspberry were perfectly blended together. There were soft, silky tannins (they were there but not harsh) and nice mouthwatering acidity to keep the wine fresh.
The biggest surprise in this wine: When I saw nearly 16% alcohol on the bottle I was worried that it would taste like brandy. But as Martín explained, the beating sun of the region raises the sugar levels so high alcohol results. But the cool nights help the grapes retain acidity and tannin so balance can be achieved in the wines. I never thought I'd have a non-dessert wine with an alcohol level this high that was this balanced. Excellent winemaking and growing conditions! This is a DRINK all the way!!!
So there you have it. Choose one of these to celebrate Pope Francis's ascension! You can't go wrong!