When you tuck into a glass of wine at the end of a busy day it’s understandable that you don’t think too much about the effort the winemaker went in to making it.
But if you ever come across a bottle from the Altura Maxima vineyard in Argentina then you should spare a moment to raise a glass to the dedicated, if not slightly eccentric, folk who helped make it.
For this is no normal run of the mill Malbec or Argentinean wine made on the flat plains of Mendoza.
They come from Altura Maxima (which translates as maximum altitude), officially the highest vineyard in in the world at just over 3,000m above sea level. This is wine made like nowhere else in the world. Literally.
Take out your map of Argentina and look at the top north-west corner near Bolivia and find the city of Salta. Then travel some 170km to the south where you end up in the mountains surrounding the Calchaqui valley. Only then are you on your way to tracking down the Altura Maxima vineyard.
It’s a stunning drive, as you pass through Argentina’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon as a mountain pass opens up onto the fertile Calcahaqui, home of the Cafayete wine region.
To reach Altura Maxima you have to pass its sister vineyard, Colome which sits at some 2,300m itself.
So remote is the area where the vines grow, high up on the mountain slopes, that the grower who lives there has been nicknamed “the Revenant”. All he has for company are the mountain goats and he has to get by living in a spartan mountain hut with no electricity or heating. Give that man an Oscar!
His efforts, and those of the whole winemaking team, have been rewarded with some of the most elegant and revered wines in Argentina.
The reason there are vines here at all is down to the vision and commitment of Swiss wine entrepreneur Donald Hess and his desire to make wines he believes are the ultimate expression of what Argentina can produce.
It’s not as if he needs to go to all this effort. The Hess family already owns hugely successful wineries around the world, including in Napa Valley in California.
So what is it like, making wine from a vineyard at the top of the world? French winemaker, Thibaut Delmotte, explains: “Every day is a different challenge. A different adventure. We only get a small crop. So we have to make sure we look after the vines.”
He has certainly put his heart and soul into the project. For rather than take the easy option and make wine in Burgundy or Bordeaux he became transfixed by the way of life in rural Argentina. So much so that 12 years later he and his Argentinean wife and children are very much part of the 400-strong Colome community which lies further down the valley from the Altura Maxima vineyard.
“I love it there. Life is very simple and very special,” he says.
His initial motivation for coming was simple enough. “I wanted to have the chance to make wine and work with different terroirs at different altitudes. It really is unique here and for a winemaker that is very exciting.”
Delmotte clearly loves the challenge every day throws up.
So what makes the wine so special? Well like all winemaking it comes down to the weather and where the grapes are grown.
Being so high means the grapes enjoy the perfect combination of cool nights, and warm days. It results in grapes packed with intense fruits, but also lots of acidity so that they tingle with freshness in your mouth.
It is very hard to achieve, but a characteristic that comes naturally to the high altitude vines of Altura Maxima.
“We have the tools to make the best Malbecs possible in Argentina there,” he adds.
The good news is you don’t have to travel to the far reaches of Argentina to try the wines. Some of the past vintages are being sold in key markets around the world. But to taste them in all their glory head to Gaucho Grill where you can pair them with what all Argentinean wines are made for. Red meat. And lots of it.