Wines With Altitude
wine pixies

Wines With Altitude

My home in New Mexico and the northern reaches of Argentina have a major aspect in common: the rest of the world has scant knowledge of our altitude. Neither of these arid regions has yet much of a wine reputation. My earnest hopes for New Mexico aside, I have been convinced that the extreme north of Argentina has the potential to be the next Napa.

The man doing the convincing in seminars in Albuquerque (at 5,000 feet above sea level) and Santa Fe (7,000 feet) was Hess Collection consulting winemaker Randle Johnson. Johnson cut his high-altitude teeth years ago on Napa’s Mount Veeder, producing cool climate Cabernet at elevations up to 2,500 feet. We tasted the Hess Collection 2007 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvée (representing vineyards situated from 1,300 to 2,000 feet). This wine is 74% Cab, with Malbec, Syrah, Merlot and a drop of Petit Verdot. “Mount Veeder is the coolest of the Napa mountains,” Johnson says. “ This is the first mountain appellation as you head north into Napa from cooler Los Carneros, perfect for producing intense Cabernet from the lower elevations of the mountain.” I like to let the wine speak, of course, and my own notes show “good astringency, with luscious dark fruit but not in your face.” A nice long finish in a wine that is already ready to drink.

We also tasted the Hess Collection 2006 Estate Grown Cabernet, from Mount Veeder elevations of 600 to 1,120 feet, a more tannic affair with plenty of dark fruit. I used the term “luscious” once again in my notes combined with a double-underscored “oak,” in this case the new French variety, bringing delightful notes of vanilla, caramelized pastry dough and cigar box. “Long”, “elegant”, “superbly balanced”; why strain for synonyms when these well-burnished descriptors so well apply?

Johnson’s current North American project under the Hess umbrella is Artezin. The name has double meaning, the first connoting artisan, based on the brand’s focus on heirloom varieties from family owned vineyards in Mendocino, Amador, and Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. The “zin” component refers to the flagship wine. The goal is to capture the best of the old Italian field blends of primarily Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, along with Carignan, Charbono, and Mourvèdre. We tasted the Artezin 2008 Zinfandel and I adored it: very ripe red fruit, spicy, soft, supple and ready to please, a fine expansion of my zin-consciousness. Johnson explains that he was able to initiate a relationship with several of Mendocio’s best growers when Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson was forced to let them go after that zin-specialist’s acquisition by Constellation. “Zin should be Zin,” Johnson stresses, “varietally correct, and not excessively alcoholic.”

As to the Artezin 2007 Petite Sirah, Johnson goes into considerable detail. “Petite Sirah is the perfect cold-climate red. We used to pick too early, at 24-25 brix, and ended up with a wine that was too harsh. We are now getting more black fruit in this by waiting until we reach 27 to 28 brix.” I enjoyed blackberry, very concentrated and ripe, dark chocolate, and the full mouthfeel. “This is the wine to match with big chewy dishes,” Johnson suggests, “like rich pastas, osso buco, and bone marrow.”

But enough of wine from elevations below the ones to which I am accustomed. It is time to move up in the world. Argentina’s north takes the breath away in as much the metaphorical sense as it does literally (until your body adjusts to the celestial Andean heights). Winery founder Donald Hess sees tremendous fine-wine potential in the region and the equator-hopping Johnson is actively trying to turn that potential into a reality. Here we are talking about altitudes exceeding 7,400 feet and ranging, in some instances, to 8,500 feet and higher. The vineyards of Argentina’s better-known Mendoza region, by contrast, average 3,000 feet in elevation.

Our first Argentine wine was the Colomé 2010 Torrontés from Salta province in the extreme north of Argentina. Hess purchased the winery, which has been chugging along since 1831, seduced by vines that may be 60 years old or even older. At 5,500 to 8,500 feet above sea level, these might be the world’s highest vineyards of any size. I have observed Torrontés ratchet up in quality the past few years, and this one continues the trend, with ripe peach, pear, jasmine and honeysuckle. Johnson slow ferments this to accentuate the aromatic quality of the wine and add body, making this wine a far cry from the watery offerings I experienced when Torrontés and I first made acquaintance. I agree that the wine, although tangibly dry, has an underlying Muscat quality. “We get a good yield/quality ratio on these vines,” Johnson says, “all the while keeping the vines on their traditional pergolas.” I noted mid-level acidity in this wine, leaving its floral elements free to serve as the ideal match for subtle herbs like parsley and tarragon, light salads, delicate white fish.

Red wines proffer the true high-altitude prize, however, and it is here that Johnson shuffles the deck and deals out mind-expanding detail. The enhanced UV-level at high altitudes may be dangerous for human skin, but it is just the thing for the skin of black grapes. The UV brings out higher anthocyanin levels in the grape skins, rich colors, concentrated flavors of black fruit and spice. More important, the exposure almost ensures that true phenolic ripeness will occur without excessive hang time, avoiding the high-sugar-leads-to-high-alcohol phenomenon. Any health benefits inherent in these phenolics is a plus. The high-altitude wineries require longer fermentation time (less oxygen), stretching out all these benefits. The real key, then, devolves to vineyard selection, soil, aspect to the sun, and local climate. The region gets little snow in winter, and scant rain any other time, bringing many of the benefits of aridity (particularly a relative freedom from fungal diseases and low yields). Water management remains the major challenge. The inaccessibility of some of these areas and lack of infrastructure is another important issue. “Hail is more an issue down in Mendoza,” Johnson stresses, “where as a general rule they factor in a 15% level of hail loss into their production numbers.”

The Colomé 2008 Estate Malbec is the product of pre-phylloxera vines dating back to 1854. These range from 5,500 to 8,500 feet. The entire operation runs on a sustainable basis with a foot in the biodynamic camp. Malbec here is enhanced with 8% Tannat and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot. “We are setting the bar for Argentine Malbec,” Johnson tells us, “here at its viticultural limit.” Johnson’s eyes light up as he describes the experiments he is conducting, variety by variety, to determine those exact altitude limits. For Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, 7,400 feet seems to be the level where these varieties cry out No mas!. Malbec, the leader here, and in fact in all Argentina, flirts with the 8,500 foot threshold. This wine is deep ruby in color, with black cherry, violet, vanilla, and baking spice, sumptuous in the mouth, not overly tannic, bringing layers of texture along with a host of flavors and aromas. It all works in concert, bringing a nice chocolate tinge onto a long finish.

The Colomé 2007 Reserva Malbec blends that grape with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, from 60 to 150-year-old pre-phylloxera vines. The wine stays 24 months in 100% new French oak. A deep violet, the wine greets the nose with black pepper and black fruit, including a jammy black plum. A respectable level of acidity works in congress with some firm tannins, but it all holds together. My favorite flavors in this one were a warm, deep blackberry, with vanilla and oak. Two years in new French oak can make its mark, but in this case the planning actualizes without a hitch. You have here a big wine that you might well use to convert smaller wine drinkers to the virtues of a wine that refuses to apologize. The bottom line here is what I would deem “sophisticated audacity”. When it works, as here, it delights.

Having just mentioned audacity, we might as well finish this story with the saga of Amalaya in the northern Calchaqui Valley of Argentina. Smitten by this land and the culture of the native Calchaqui Indians, Donald Hess purchased some key parcels without benefit of a hydrology analysis. “Donald witched for the water,” Johnson relates. Fortunately, in this nearly rain-free climate, the water table proved adequate. Produced in Andean foothills at an altitude of between 5,400 and 5,700 feet, the 2009 Amalaya is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat. This wine is a deep purple, with superb visual clarity. My notes are cherry, black cherry, violet, and black raspberry. Mid-level acidity works with moderate tannins to provide a silky mouthfeel, with some spice on the finish. The term Amalaya in the local native language means “hope for a miracle.” If adequate water represents the first miracle, then a successful high-altitude blend like this may well represent the next.


Verdict: High Altitude: Real Promise


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We find that Argentina is a lot more than tango, grass-fed beef and even Mendoza.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Randle Johnson

Winemaker Randle Johnson...

Randle Johnson

...covers plenty of territory.


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