I once read somewhere that the world’s worst roads will take you to the world’s best grapes. And on my recent trek to Salta, helping lead out our Vision and Vine tour of north-west Argentina, those words never rang truer. After snaking our way up twisting roads through a spectacularly colorful valley, the thin blue skies pierced by jagged snow peaks, we found an oasis of viticultural calm. And some truly sublime wines.
Calafate has some of the world’s highest vineyards, and here we were at 8,000 feet, savoring the intense punch of a young Malbec, and breathing the thinnest of airs while surrounded by peaks of truly primal colors. I’d wanted a wine adventure when I first started planning this tour of Argentina’s high-altitude wines, and I’d got one.
But the drama and vigor of the mountain wines of Cafayate are often overshadowed by Argentina’s best-known wine region, Mendoza far to the south. Easy to reach, with multitude of marvelous Malbec wineries to slouch around, Mendoza is on the beaten path of choice for the world-traveling wine connoisseur.
Why bother to voyage to the remote region of Salta, Argentina to explore the Andean Mountains of the Calchaquí Valley?
Because here among the highest vineyards in the world are the world’s best wines. And their framed by some of world’s most beautiful landscapes. A feast of delight for the eye and palate. Which is exactly why I decided to call our photographic tour to this neglected gem Vine and Vision.
Cafayate actually has the pedigree too. Jesuit missionaries from Peru planted the first vines here in the 1550, attracted by a region of heat, dryness and harsh soils. Good for the soul and good for the vine. This wine region is actually one of the furthest north in the southern hemisphere, and has the full weight of the tropical sun bearing down on its grapes.
What saves them from drowning in ripeness is the height. That and the nutrient-poor soil. Altitude is king here though. It shaves off the fierceness of the heat in day, and provides a welcoming cool at night. That makes for an extreme daily temperature range here, which can race across 40°F or 50°F in the summer. That helps preserve and boost the acidity. It also helps, with the high sunlight, to thicken the grape skins.
Our host, passionate sommelier Andreas Hoy of Los Patios de Vineyards told us that this is what gives Cafayate’s wines their vivid colors and muscular flavors. The reds here are certainly entertaining. As in Mendoza, the Malbecs rule the roost here. But there are Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons too, as well as the little-known Tannat. All share a robustness that fits the dramatic landscape.
But these are certainly not over-simple wines either. Lots of complexity, lots of balance. And I did try a lot!
My favorite, though is a white. The Torrontés, a grape variety unique to Argentina, it fully blossoms here in the superb conditions of Cafayate. It’s a delight to the nose as soon as it’s poured, all dry desert flowers. Then it hits the palate with a wonderful freshness, before holding on through a deepening array of flavors. Not one to rush.
So I have to confess I’ve fallen in love with another part of the world, this time as much for its spectacular flavors as for its stunning sights. Another place of wonder clamoring for attention on my ever busier year. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I’ve got plenty of excuses to keep coming back to Salta and Cafayate. So many more tours to organize, so many more vineyards to explore.
And you’re more than welcome to join me!