High elevation vineyards have long been sought after for the intense character of the grapes they produce. Think Riesling vines high up on the steep slopes of Germany’s Mosel or mountain-grown wines from places like Italy’s Alto Adige. The idea that altitude and wine quality share a correlation is nothing new. Mountain and hillside vineyards benefit from better drainage than their counterparts on valley floors. Their soils tend to be rockier, resulting in greater hydric and nutrient stress for the vines and consequently lower yields of more concentrated, flavorful fruit. Cooler temperatures in high-up places help to retain grapes’ natural acidity, while greater exposure to winds help to keep them dry, warding off problems like mold and disease. Harvest dates also tend to be later, giving grapes the benefit of longer time on the vine to develop phenolic ripeness and complexity. These wines may fetch higher prices for all of the aforementioned reasons, yes, but also: They’re more expensive and dangerous to cultivate, sometimes occupying hard-to-reach locations or requiring hand harvesting where machinery simply can’t be used.
Last week, Bodega Colomé in Salta, Argentina, rolled out the first vintage—2012—of their Altura Maxima Malbec. Planted in 2007 under the direction of Donald Hess and winemaker Thibaut Delmotte at 10,207 feet above sea level, this single vineyard stands as the world’s highest. There, in its Andean-adjacent setting, vines grow not only above the clouds but also terrifyingly close to the tree line. An additional challenge to farming at such a height, notes Delmotte, is that crops are open to pillaging by any and every hungry animal in the vicinity; other than their vines, nothing else grows. These Malbec grapes develop notably thicker skins than those planted at lower altitudes owing to their greater sun exposure. In theory, that thickness would translate to more color intensity and tannic structure in the finished wine.
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To put these theories to the test, Delmotte poured the new wine alongside three other lote especial (single-vineyard) Malbec bottlings in order of ascending altitude: La Brava (at 5,900 feet above sea level), Colomé Estate (at 7,500 feet) and El Arenal (at 8,500 feet). True to form, the first was the ripest, roundest expression in the glass, full of brambly black fruits and the violet floral aromas characteristic of the grape variety. The Colomé Estate bottling was also fairly round and open—a convergence of red and black fruit flavors with ripe tannins. The third, El Arenal, smelled smokier and more mineral—its deep, dark fruit tinged with pencil lead scents. Altura Maxima was the most perfumed—almost rosy on the nose with kirsch-like fruit and a silky texture that reminded me more of super-ripe Pinot Noir than classic Malbec.
All things considered, the comparison wasn’t perfect. Firstly, the soil type for the first and third wine had more in common, deep and sandy as opposed to the Colomé Estate’s loam, so altitude wasn’t the only variable with all other aspects constant. The winemaking and aging regimen for Altura Maxima is also different (the wine sees 24 months in barriques rather than the 15 or so for the three lotes especials). Plus, there were vintage variants to consider—the first three wines being 2013s to Altura Maxima’s 2012. The new release is quite good and merits its $125 price tag if you can find it (only 165 cases total are produced). Whether or not that’s because of the vines’ extreme elevation, I can’t say for sure. But it’s a pretty impressive story!