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A Question of Altitude: Vintners in Argentina Fight for Title of World's Highest Vineyard

Donald Hess and a winery neighbor are trying to top each other in the Andes.

David Sax
Posted: March 26, 2004

Record-setting endeavors tend to rest on shaky ground, as they face fresh competition from people fueled by even loftier ambitions. Such is the case in northern Argentina's Salta province, where two wineries are vying for the title of world's highest vineyard.

Donald Hess, Swiss multimillionaire and founder of the Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley, claims that his experimental vineyard at El Arenal -- one of his three wine ventures in northwest Argentina's Andean foothills -- contains the vines that rise above all others. Raul Dávalos, owner of neighboring Tacuil winery, begs to differ, claiming his estate holds the altitude record. The rivalry has sparked many tales and rumors in Argentina's winemaking community.

"I think it's much simpler than people talk about," said Hess, who is certain that his 5-acre El Arenal vineyard is the world's highest, at 9,892 feet, having verified the altitude with GPS technology. Hess purchased the land in 1998, three years prior to buying the Colomé winery and vineyard, also in Salta, from Dávalos. Hess has planted several varieties at the site -- including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay and Tannat -- and expects the vineyard to reach production by 2006.

"Nothing will happen with [Hess's vineyard]," countered Dávalos. "It's too high, too exposed and too cold." He noted that Hess' experiment had to be replanted last October after the 2002 planting failed.

Dávalos contends that his Tacuil winery has the highest vineyards currently in production, at 8,520 feet. The 10-acre plot grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc, which go into his traditional high-alcohol RD and Dávalos wines, which are mainly sold in Argentina. "For me there is no competition," Dávalos said, boasting. "Now the only reality is that today the highest in production is Tacuil."

To Hess, whether the vineyard is in commercial production yet is unimportant. He said, "I told him, 'Dávalos, you are not the highest. I will be.' Because it's important for me that if I say something, it's true."

But Dávalos is not satisfied to rest where he is. In August, he plans to plant at 9,357 feet, and he hints that he may try to plant beyond 9,843 feet (about 3,000 meters) by 2005. For his part, Hess says that if his current experiment succeeds, he will push even higher. The limits of their properties climb to the peaks of the Andes.

Hess said his goal is to discover the effects of higher altitudes on wines. Salta is a warm province, but at his vineyard sites, he said, "We have cooler nights and avoid the hot summers. That's very beneficial for the maturity of the grapes." He said the grape sugars ripen at a more moderate pace and that increased UV light has improved the color of the grapes. But he is quick to point out that any conclusions are premature: "We just don't know the advantages. We will have to wait and see."

Despite their competing claims, both Hess and Dávalos are eager to stress that no ill feelings exist between them, characterizing each other as the best of neighbors.

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Read more about Argentina's wines and Donald Hess' project:

  • March 24, 2003
    Argentina's One-Two Punch

  • October 29, 2002
    Donald Hess Project in Argentina Close to Fruition

  • April 13, 2001
    Pioneer Spirit Drives Founder of Napa's Hess Collection Winery to Argentina
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