All wineries require hard work – good ones even more so. The work is often all-consuming, and the returns can be minimal. Some pay off handsomely though, as has Bodega Colomé, an Argentinean winery owned by Donald Hess, the Swiss multimillionaire who founded, but has since retired from, the Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley.
Hess bought property up in the mountainous region of the Calchaquí Valley in northern Argentina in 2001, after exploring the area on foot during numerous visits.
“The land is the most important thing,” says Hess, who I sat down with yesterday. “It’s the foundation of the house.”
During some of his exploratory trips, Hess came across a pre-phylloxera vineyard of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, planted in 1852, and a dilapidated winery building with the date 1831 etched in a beam over the doorway. The extremely high altitude of the vineyards, the highest of which sits at more than 9,000 feet, also intrigued Hess.
Although the remote area did not have any electrical power, nor any television or cell phone reception, Hess began to rejuvenate the vineyard and renovate the winery. Along the way, the devaluation of the Argentine peso threw an additional monkey wrench into the works.
Hess persevered however, and bottled a small amount of the 2002 vintage, which was only released in Argentina. The wines now enter the U.S. market with a bang; both the Bodega Colomé Calchaquí Valley 2004 (91 points, $25) a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, and the Reserva Calchaquí Valley 2003 (93, $90), a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, earned outstanding scores in my recent tasting.
The wines are opulent, with full-throttle, exotic layers of fruit, but they are not tiring to drink, staying fresh and delineated on the palate. They are a testament to their terroir; because of the high elevation, a high level of UV radiation reaches the grapes, and that leads to deeper colors and more polyphenols. In addition, the arid conditions help produce extremely healthy and powerful fruit, with the wines checking in around 16 percent alcohol.
Winemaker Randle Johnson, who has been with Hess since the early 1980s, oversees production, and has adapted his knowledge to the idiosyncrasies of the property’s vines, which now total 270 acres. With oxygen levels reduced at that high elevation, the fermentations can take three times longer to complete than they do under normal conditions. Luckily, the native yeasts used in fermentation are as robust as the grapes, and don’t choke off before consuming all the sugar; they leaves behind rich, but dry, wines.
Hess has installed his own power source – a water-driven turbine. He has also erected a school and church for the 400 local inhabitants of the nearest town, a quarter of whom Hess employs on his property. There is also a nine-room hotel.
The work is ongoing, and Hess now spends 11 months a year at Colomé. He plans to increase production while building additional facilities, including a museum space for the contemporary artist James Turrell. (Hess is also a major contemporary art collector.) It’s all-consuming, but the returns are worth it.