Log In / Join Now

A Sit Down With Donald Hess...

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 13, 2006 10:04am ET

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.

Randell Phalp
Lenexa, KS —  September 13, 2006 11:53am ET
150+ year-old vines. What kind of yeilds are they seeing?

Thanks for the explaination about the polyphenols and color being increased by the UV. Now I understand why my Valle Escondido's and Catena Zapata's all bear such deep hues.

Certainly, the old-vines only comprise a small portion of the 270 acres of vine. In addition to Cab and Malbec, are they experimenting with any other fruit?


Red-X Liquors, Grandview, MO
James Molesworth
September 13, 2006 12:09pm ET
Randell: Yes, only a small portion (about 25 acres) of the total are the old vines, which go into the reserve wine. They are yielding about a ton per acre - very low. They also have Tannat and Torrontes.
Alex Cobb
Fort Worth, TX —  September 15, 2006 11:25am ET
James - is there really a difference in the taste of a pre-phylloxera vs. post-phylloxera wine? I have have read some about of how they are the "holy grail" of sorts and Bordeaux for example made better wines back then. Or is this perceived quality of fruit difference more the romance of the past? What do you think about this, having actually tasted pre-phylloxera wines? -Alex
James Molesworth
September 18, 2006 11:29am ET
Alex: Great question.

With pre-phylloxera vines, you have unadulterated genetic material. The vine is on its own rootstock, in its purest form.

The general theory is that since the grafting of vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, the quality of the vines' health then dropped. This is probably, but not entirely, the rootstock's fault, as other diseases were imported into vineyard during the process, such as leaf roll, etc.

So, yes, these vines are the holy grail, in the sense that their age and possibly their genetic makeup lead to smaller, more concentrated grapes (and theoretically more terroir). And of course they are a link to the past, and so generate the romantic image you touch upon.

Can you taste the difference? Perhaps. But even if the grapes are moreconcentrated or more flavorful or more true to their varietal character, they still need to be farmed with great care. Simply having pre-phylloxera vines doesn't make up for shoddy viticulture or winemaking.

Assuming all parts of the winemaking equation are equal though, I think any winemaker would take a plot of pre-phylloxera vines any day.
James Molesworth
September 19, 2006 9:47am ET
Alex: Your question was interesting enough that I asked a few vintners what they thought as well.

Here's what Marc Perrin of Chateau de Beaucastel and Perrin & Fils in the Rhone had to say:

¿My feeling about pre-phylloxera vs. grafted vines is that overall the pre-phylloxera have more density and less alcohol than the grafted ones. The age of the vines is important, but we think that when they chose the rootstocks [for grafting] they favored ones that gave more alcohol. This is not data based, just a feeling from our experience.¿
James Molesworth
September 19, 2006 9:50am ET
And Santiago Achaval of Achaval-Ferrer in Argentina had this lengthy response, which I'll have to post in two parts.

Part 1:

¿Phylloxera acted like the dinosaur extinction event: it cleaned the slate and growers had to choose what plants to graft onto American rootstock. Many ¿families¿ within the varieties were lost because they were not replanted. So what we have post-phylloxera is a smaller (poorer) gene pool. That would not have been a problem if the re-planting had been done with more than one goal in mind: A group of producers selecting their re-planting material with quality as a goal, another group with quantity. That was the case in some major varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, etc., but not in others, like Malbec.

I¿ve tasted wines made of French plants imported into Argentina, and these were harsh, with aggressive tannins, not the fine tannins that are typical of the Malbec in Mendoza. They were lacking in that velvet in the mid-palate that the best Mendoza Malbec can express, and I didn¿t find those violet notes that come from the pre-phylloxera Malbec populations that live in Mendoza. In fact the [imported] vines were ripped out and re-planted with Mendoza Malbec selections.

Another cause of the divergence in the genetic make-up of the pre- and post-phylloxera is the clonal selection and clean-up work done on the phylloxera survivors. When we taste a wine made from a fermentation of single-clone blocks, we have to acknowledge that all the plants are the same individual, and that every plant is virus-free. This allows a very even ripening curve. When the wine is made of populations, the ripening is not as uniform. So wines from clonal fermentations are simpler, but with less green or over-ripe notes. Wines from population fermentations are more complex, but if vineyard management was not crazily neurotic, the uneven ripening may have given rise to some of those notes I talked about before.
James Molesworth
September 19, 2006 9:50am ET
And Part 2 from Santiago Achaval.

"My personal preference is always choose populations, and work the vineyard to cull the less ripe bunches, and use the selection tables to get rid of the over-ripe ones. But as you can see, this adds a level of uncertainty as to what is the cause of the difference you¿re tasting: Is it pre- vs. post-phylloxera vines, or is it simply because of clonal use, or under and over ripe because of populations? Or even more complicated: is it the fact that the clonal material is virus free, and the populations are not? And what are the flavors and aromas due to the stress of vine viruses?

And last we go into the grafted vs. un-grafted. The theory says that the true varietal expressions are the un-grafted ones. As is most of Argentina¿s vineyard. But being realistic, I don¿t know anybody that has done a double blind test, planting in the same vineyard all the six different alternatives: pre-phylloxera virus-free ungrafted, pre-phylloxera virused ungrafted, pre-phylloxera virus-free grafted, pre-phylloxera virused grafted, post-phylloxera ungrafted and post-phylloxera grafted (and even then we¿re missing the post-phylloxera virused ones). Then make wine out of each of them to compare flavors. That would be a very interesting test, and really the only one that could take this discussion out of the realm of opinions and into one of fact.¿

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.