On friday this week Thibaut Delmotte – young, charming and passionate winemaker of Bodegas Colomé – visited Helsingborg in Sweden. I was invited to taste the main wines from Colomés range and also had an opportunity to talk with him about his winemaking philosopies.
Although it is one of the oldest bodegas in Argentina (founded in 1831) – Bodegas Colomé’s fame is quite recent. In 2001 Donald Hess and The Hess Family Estate bought the old vineyards and started an extensive quality regime and began bottling the wines in it’s own name. Two years later Donald Hess planted his first new vineyards in Argentina.
Thibaut Delmotte came along in 2005 and it also marks the date/year for the first harvest from the new winery. Being from Burgundy he was first a bit confused by the strong, dark and tannic malbec wines from the Andes. But it didn’t take him long to tame and master the sometimes wild characteristics of malbec. Today his wines ranges from the early drinking and fruity Amalaya to the dark, dense, tannic and alcoholic Colomé Reserva.
And it didn’t take long for the wine media to take interest either. In 2006 and 2008 the Colomé Estate was among Wine Spectators top 100 wine-list. And after the taasting I can’t but agree. These are some of the best malbec wines I’ve tasted from Argentina.
They key to success lie partly in the very high altitudes of the vineyards in Salta in the far north of Argentina. Some as high as 3100 meters above the ocean (highest in the world?). Great daytime/nighttime (35°/15° C) differences in temperature gives the grapes great acidity, and the high UV-radiation gives lots of polyphenolic content.
Another key factor is old vineyards. Although the new plantings have been extensive since 2001 – Colomé has some 4 hectars of very old malbec (90-150 years old) – and some very old Cabernet Sauvignon and Torrontes as well. Important not only for making concentrated wines but also for future plantings.
– It’s fantastic to have such a genetic heritage. We take cuttings from these pre-phylloxera vines when we plant new vinyards, says Thibaut Delmotte.
Malbec comprise the great majority of vines in the vineyards. But there is also Tannat, Syrah, Cabernet, Tempranillo and Petit Verdot. And some new plantings of Merlot and Pinot Noir. And for white wines there is Torrontes, Sauvignon Blanc and some Chardonnay, Sémillon, Riesling and Sauvignonasse. But not all varietys thrive equally well on these extreme altitudes.
– Malbec is really ideally suited for the altitude and dry climate. Our Tannat is very floral. The Syrah is very spicey and the Petit Verdot is very elegant.
But cabernet and tempranillo is a whole nother ball game. And at 2600 meters and above – Tannat also has a hard time to ripen fully.
– It’s impossible to get Cabernet and Tannat to ripen fully. Cabernet gets too much green and herbal aromas and green acidity. And Tempranillo gets loads of tannins but too low acicdity and fruit concentration. If we can’t get Tempranillo to work we will probably replace it with Malbec.
For Thibaut Delmotte working in winerys in Bordeaux really gave him a sense and understanding of blending different grapes.
– In Burgundy we just do one wine more or less. We do of course make the premier cru and the village wine – but that’s about it. Malbec really needs blending with other varieties to give it more complexity. And it does really give different wines in different terroirs.
The approach to winemaking and vineyard maintenance is minimal intervention. Already from the outset the farming methods were organic and in 2008 Colomé became the first certified biodynamic wine producer in Argentina.
But why bio-dynamism?
– Donald Hess always wanted a biodynamic vineyard and Colomé is perfect. It is a 39000 hectar farm with no neighbours which is very important – there is no risk of contamination. Second it is a very dry climate with only 120 mm rain a year and the cold nights are very good against diseases.
But he himself wasn’t a true believer from the beginning. But over the years he has been convinced. He says that that they get greater bio-diversity this way, a greater soil composition with more microorganisms. And he wouldn’t go back to conventional farming.
Pressed on the subject he admits that there probably aren’t any real quality differences between oraganic and biodynamic farming. It has more to do with personal preferences.
– It’s more of a thing for ourselves. We don’t even put it on the labels. It is more of a philosophy to follow the astrological calender. For me it is more complete. I understand better why and how I do things. Organic is fine but it is also more of a marketing argument.
So organics is a marketing strategy and biodynamism isn’t? But how does he feel about another recent trend in winemaking – that in making so called “natural wines” (non-interventionist wines with little or no addition of any chemical ingredients, sugar or acids)?
– I really feel that I am doing “natural” wines. We add nothing but oak and sulphur. I use natural yeast. We probably couldn’t live without sulphur dioxide because our ph-levels are ideal for bacterial development. So it would be very risky doing wine without SO2.
– When I started there were not many that fermented with natural yeast. But now that people have seen what we are doing more and more are returning to natural yeast. I find that I get a better fermentation with natural yeast.
And now what? What is the next challenge?
– For me it is improving what we have done so far and continue to experiment. I was only 25 when I became winemaker of Colomé. It was an incredible opportunity for me. It’s fantastic!
For more on Bodegas Colomé and the notes on the wines tasted – stay tuned to Ericsson Uncorked!