When Thibaut Delmotte first arrived in Argentina in 2004, well, “itwasn’t for the wine,” he quickly says. “I had never had any Argentine wine. For me, it was all about French wines.” This, of course, is not surprising. Delmotte grew up in Burgundy, France. And while his family was not in the wine business, “there was always a bottle of wine on the family table for every meal,” he adds. However, growing up, winemaking was not on the table. “In my family, I am the first one doing wine.” And winemaking was not even on the table for Delmotte as a child. “I was always fascinated by documentaries about the wildlife around the world. I was thinking I would be a video cameraman for Animal Planet or National Geographic or something like that.”
Somewhere the idea of filming wildlife faded and the desire to learn about wine grew and Delmotte headed to Beaune, Burgundy for his studies. One thing he learned quickly was how different the real world was from school. “Learning at school and actually doing it are two very different things,” he says, “my best school is the experience I have in every winery I worked at and with every different vintage I have done.” Added up, it’s more than twenty years. “My first vintage was 1998. It was in Santenay, Burgundy, mostly Pinot Noir. I also worked in Chablis, Burgundy with Chardonnay and I spent several years working in Bordeaux: Fronsac and Lalande de Pomerol with Merlot, Pessac Leognan with Cabernet Sauvignon and Medoc with the 5 typical varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec). Both of these regions gave me great experience for my future. Burgundy show me that the most important is not winemaking, but the vineyard: the terroir. Since then I try to respect the terroir with human intervention possible during the elaboration.
In Bordeaux, Médoc in particular, I learn about blending. A new aspect for me, not only the terroir but also the influence of each variety in a blend.”
So what was Delmotte doing in Argentina 15 years ago? “I came to Argentina as a tourist and I traveled for one year all around the country.” And one place really resonated with him; Salta. “I really like Salta so I stayed a couple of months in this region. The food, the quality of life and the people are great here. And when I heard that there were a project of vineyard at more than 2300 meters (7500 feet) I said no way! I have to know this place. That’s how I met mister Donald Hess. We had good feeling and he asked me to be his winemaker for at least 3 years…that was 14 years ago!” There is actually a little more to the story. “My interview with Mister Hess was a blind tasting in 2004. 10 wines that I have to taste with him, the winemaker at the time, vineyard manager…We have to taste first and after give our ranking for each wine. I did very well for most of the tasting, but the one I put last, the one I like less, everybody around the table put it first! Mr Hess ask me why I didn’t like it, and I knew that I was in trouble, but I tell him the true: I felt the wine too ripe, too alcoholic, too oaky…Of course it was the iconic wine of the winery at the time: Colome Reserva! I thought: that’s it! I lost the job. But Mr Hess ask me about another wine: my favorite, why did I like it. Because I feel it balance, easy to drink and elegant: it was Colome Estate! It saved me! And Mr Hess likes my point of view about the Estate: making pleasure wine that you can enjoy several glass. That’s why he decide to hire me.”
And as Delmotte said, that was 14 years ago. Since then, he has been very busy. “What I really like, is that I am part of the project since almost day one. So we grow together with Colomé with all the success and all the failure. When we started the project in 2001, there were only 10ha(hectres) of old vineyard at 2.300 meters. Now we have 150 ha between 1.800 and 3.111 meters. For us it was a very exciting challenge to start this project from almost nothing. We are pioneers. and doing one of the highest wine in the world is very exciting. “ Indeed. Exciting and very impressive. “We are now one of the most successful winery in Argentina! Our first challenge, and the one we have to have in mind everyday: maintain the quality and the level of demand. But in the same time we can’t stop innovating, looking for new vineyard management, new winemaking process, etc…It is not easy to keep reinventing yourself after so long time and already so much success.”But there are other challenges as well. Colomé is very unique winery that includes four estates at four different altitudes. 1.800 meters (6.000 feet), 2.300 meters (7.500 feet), 2.600 meters (8.500 feet) and 3.111 meters (10.200 feet), “one of the highest vineyard in the world!”
As you can imagine these varying altitudes and terroir have pros and cons but according to Delmotte, the good definitely outweighs the bad. “In 15 harvest, I have one complicated because of weather, many rain. In general we have very low rain (125-150 mm/year) and very healthy fruit. So we can pick at perfect ripeness, balancing round tannins and concentration with freshness.” Ozone plays a large role as well. “At the high altitude we have ozone in the atmosphere so we have more ultra-violet radiations,” says Delmotte, “so the fruit produces thicker and darker skin to protect itself. This gives the wine deeper color and great tannic structure,” he adds.And the altitude does even more. “With altitude we have very concentrated fruit and fresh at the same time. You don’t have to over-extract to have good color, concentration and structure, it is coming on its own. It’s great because I let the wine take what it needs from the skin. The Altura Maxima Malbec is the expression of very high altitude. The Autentico Malbec is a wine that’s all about vineyard with no intervention in the winery, no oak, no filtration; purity of the terroir and the varietal.
But the Estate Malbec is still is my favorite, because it’s a blend of 4 different terroir with the challenge of vineyard managing, picking date, winemaking and aging different for each terroir and having those great tools to make a great classic Malbec.
The climate in Salta is fairly moderate which also plays a hand in the quality of the grapes. “The temperature during the ripening season (January to April), it never go higher than 28C (82F) and can go down to 22C (71.5F) during the day,” says Delmotte. “Those temperatures help us to keep fresh fruit, no cooked fruit, and no over-ripe characters. It gives elegant and complex nose to the wine.” But it’s not just the moderate temperatures during the day that’s important. The difference of temperature between day and night during ripening season is a key factor in the characteristic of Colomé wines. “The cold nights keep a great level of acidity in the wine. So, naturally, we have great freshness in our wine,” Delmotte adds. The result, “these extreme conditions, produce high quality fruit, and give us a great paradox: very dark and concentrate wine, but elegant, fresh and harmonious at the same time!”
I was curious about Delmotte’s impression of the James Turrell Museum at Colome. I haven’t been but I have researched it and I have been to the museum at The Hess Collection in Mt. Veeder. Needless to say, Delmotte was as blown away by it as I was at the one in Napa. “At firstI have no idea about James Turrell, but I have the chance to see the construction from zero. The building was made by local people and it was amazing to see them inventing new technique to reproduce Turrell’s plan! Once finished, I had the luck to do the first tour with Mister Hess and Mister Turrell themselves. It’s difficult to express the feeling that let you the visit of this museum. It is unique and it can touch you deeply.
So it is not surprising that Delmotte is still in Argentina after 15 years. He has completely embraced the place. “It’s quiet! It’s at 5 hours drive from Salta city, 500 people are living here. No shopping, no cellphone service…
And there is one spot that he finds complete solace in. “The swimming pool of the hotel!” And from the many photos Mark has shown me from his two trips there, I totally get it.