Argentina seems like a Nicolás Catena—dominated show these days, but there are other projects in the works that could provide some spirited competition for the country's leading wine producer.
Donald Hess, the Swiss multimillionaire and founder of The Hess Collection winery and world-class art museum in Napa Valley, is bringing his experience and financing to three wine ventures in northwest Argentina's Andean foothills. Closest to fruition is Colomé, with plans to release the first wine -- a high-end blend primarily of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2002 vintage -- next summer.
Hess recently retired as chairman of Hess Holdings, which encompasses restaurants, real estate and Valser mineral water, along with the California winery and vineyards. Although he stills owns 50 percent of South Africa's Glen Carlou winery and oversees the art collection in California, he now has more time to devote to his properties in Argentina.
Hess is hoping to challenge the top wines from Bodega Catena Zapata (formerly Bodegas Esmeralda), whose quality outshines that of other large wineries in the country. "I am a big admirer of Mr. Catena; he makes fantastic wines," he said. "But if my hopes for Colomé are in any way justified, I will be able to compete with anyone in Argentina."
Hess took control of the Colomé property in June 2001. Located in the Calchaqui Valley in Salta province, the property came with 25 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and a third, unidentified red variety -- all on their own rootstock. The vineyard was planted nearly 150 years ago, before the spread of the destructive phylloxera vine louse in Europe and the United States forced vintners to graft their vines onto resistant American rootstock.
Hess has since added another 49 acres of vineyards and is planning a total of 370 acres. He has renovated the property's winery, which dates to 1831, making it the oldest existing winery facility in Argentina. In addition, he is building a nine-room hotel that he hopes to fill with wine-loving tourists, once it is completed in January. The remote Calchaqui Valley is known for its natural beauty and currently draws some 80,000 visitors each year.
The first wine comes from the 2002 vintage and was made by Hess himself along with Hess Collection vice president Randle Johnson. Only 400 cases were produced, and the price has not yet been disclosed. Plans are to eventually reach 40,000 cases annually, which will be split between two bottlings: a gran reserva from the property's old vines and a regular bottling using grapes from the new vines.
The vineyards' high elevation -- up to 9,000 feet -- makes for extremely arid growing conditions. In order to secure enough water, Hess had to purchase the surrounding 96,000 acres of land to capture the runoff from the Andes. "The vineyards were in very bad shape," said Hess of the condition of the property when he purchased it. "The previous owner was more interested in red peppers, which need a lot of water in spring, so every spring he watered them and neglected the vines."
In addition to Colomé, Hess has launched a project called Amalaya, located a two-hour drive to the north in the Payogasta area of Salta. There, he has a 44-acre vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Tannat.
A third project, currently unnamed, is located another 9 miles farther north, near Argentina's border with Bolivia. A 1.2-acre test vineyard was planted to Cabernet, Malbec, Tannat, Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir earlier this year. Wines from these last two projects are still several years away.
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