According to south american legend, when God finished creating the earth, the angels came to him with a problem: “We’ve got a lot of mountains, valleys and rivers left over.” God answered, “Dump them at the end of the earth.” And that’s how Chile and Argentina were made. Grape growers and winemakers are eternally grateful.
Not many countries can boast vineyards higher than 3,500 feet above sea level. In Argentina, however, more than half of the country’s vineyards lie well above that threshold in the foothills of the Andes. The mountains also loom large over Chile, where vineyards descend from the mountains to the valleys and coastline beyond. Mountain conditions favor success: Extreme altitude delivers intense heat during the day and chilly nights, resulting in even ripeness with intense aromatics and colors in the grapes. Some of the finest and most complex wines of Argentina and Chile are grown in these high-altitude vineyards. And there is ample evidence that the best is yet to come.
The Jesuit missionaries planted their first vineyards in Argentina around the 16th century, focusing on a 1,000-mile stretch from Mendoza to Salta, bordered by the Andes. The Andes restrict rainfall, creating desert-like conditions in Argentina (in contrast to the coastal Mediterranean influences on the Chilean side). The Spaniards were in for a surprise: The Mendoza Valley was unexpectedly green and fertile, courtesy of ancient Incan and Huarpes irrigation. An ingenious system of underground channels diverted snowmelt from peak to valley, remarkably still operational today.
One of the original Spanish Mission grapes would evolve into Torrontes, a crisp and perfumed variety that is the signature white wine of Argentina. Colomé Torrontes is one of the best examples. Made by the Hess family in a winery that once housed the colonial rulers of the northern Salta region, the Altura Máxima vineyards of Colomé reach 9,500 feet, officially the highest in the world.
Argentina’s desert climate, high altitudes and natural water resources favor wines with intense fruit and expressive acidity. No grape variety has thrived more in these extreme mountain conditions than Malbec. Once a forgotten variety that made its way to Argentina from the southwest of France in the 1800s, Malbec has soared in Argentina, transforming Mendoza into an epicenter of fine wine. Perfectly suited for sunny days and cool nights, Malbec wines are full-bodied, juicy and jammy, with rich, dark fruit flavors like blackberry and red plum, as well as complex notes of vanilla, tobacco and dark chocolate, and oak.
The Malbec boom started around 2000, with wineries like Catena, Altos Las Hormigas and Terrazas de los Andes delivering easy-to-drink styles that Americans quickly embraced. What has followed is even more exciting: Argentinian Malbecs grown at high altitude deliver a complexity of red fruit flavors like cherry, raspberry and violets with wonderful balance. They are collector-worthy wines that showcase terroir.
For a winemaker, there is no greater compliment than making a “terroir wine.” Terroir is the sum of all things—including climate, elevation and soils—that distinguishes one vineyard site from the next. Dr. Laura Catena, founder of the Catena Institute of Wine, has had years to observe terroir in action at Catena Zapata, her family’s pioneering Mendoza winery. “Mendoza is one of the few places in the world with strikingly different wine terroirs within short distances,” she shares. Her most recent study reveals that terroir is not just a theoretical concept. The Catena Institute blind-tested 23 small-parcel wines from multiple growing areas and was able to identify 11 of 23 parcelas with 100% certainty on chemical analysis alone, and the remaining 12 with up to 83% certainty. Dr. Catena also replaced the historic French term cru (wines that show similar character from the same vineyard area) with the Spanish term parcela. After all, every wine in the terroir study was from Mendoza.
Armed with the facts, tasting the latest vintages of high-end Argentine parcelas is even more gratifying. Catena Alta is an elegant Malbec blend sourced from small parcel estate vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo and Valle de Uco subregions of Mendoza. To step up in quality, try single vineyard Malbecs such as Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard “River Stones” Malbec, planted at a dizzying 4,750 feet. The Achaval Ferrer winery also offers outstanding single vineyard selections, including Finca Bella Vista, a densely colored wine that consistently over delivers for collectors. Single vineyard parcelas are beautiful but carry hefty price points. For every day, Achaval Ferrer Malbec is a textbook example of this superstar variety—bright ruby red, fresh and floral, it’s the reason we all started drinking Malbec.
COLOMÉ TORRONTES 2020
100% TORRONTES. LIGHT YELLOW WITH GREEN HUES. AROMAS OF CITRUS AND FLORALS. CRISP TASTE WITH HINTS OF OREGANO, HONEY AND LEMON ZEST.
CATENA ALTA ‘HISTORIC ROWS’ MALBEC 2017 (MENDOZA, ARGENTINA)
100% MALBEC. DEEP PURPLE COLOR WITH AROMAS OF FRESH VIOLETS. GREAT BALANCE; SHOWS RED BERRY AND SPICE WITH CHOCOLATE AND HERBS ON THE FINISH.
DON MELCHOR 2018 (PUENTE ALTO VINEYARD, MAIPO VALLEY, CHILE)
91% CABERNET SAUVIGNON, 5% CABERNET FRANC, 3% MERLOT AND 1% PETIT VERDOT. AN ELEGANT BOUQUET OF RED FRUITS AND FLORALS WITH WELL-INTEGRATED TANNINS AND A LONG, REFINED FINISH. WILL AGE 30-PLUS YEARS.
Crossing the Andes to Chile, winemaker Enrique Tirado of Viña Don Melchor has crafted one of the world’s most highly awarded Cabernets since 1995. Years of analysis have allowed him to uncover the secrets of Puente Alto Vineyard, situated at a cool 2,100 feet in the upper Maipo Valley. Inspired by first-growth Bordeaux, Tirado combines artistry with science in his approach, drawing on vine parcels to reveal the beauty of the composition. “When we start working on the blend, we have not one expression but hundreds of micro-vinifications to consider that collectively represent the distinct flavors, aromas, textures and color variations of our terroir,” Tirado muses. “Creating the final assemblage of Don Melchor is like painting in many colors to illustrate the beauty of this extraordinary vineyard.”
Originally a French term, terroir has achieved new heights in the Andes; many of the top wines of Argentina and Chile showcase the elegance and finesse that comes from mountain winemaking. These are terroir wines of the first order, giving consumers much to look forward to. *
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.