Argentina’s El Esteco plants ‘icon’ vineyard

26th April, 2016 by Lauren Eads

Argentina’s El Esteco has planted what it hopes will become an “icon” vineyard of northern Argentina, having completed the first stage of its El Socorro project in Cafayate.

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Francisco Xavier Tellechea, viticulturist at El Esteco at its baby El Socorro vineyard

Based in the northern Argentina province of Salta in Cafayate, which lies within the Calchaquí Valley, planting of the first 17 hectares of El Esteco’s El Socorro vineyard was completed in December 2015. The vineyard is intended to emulate the producer’s prized Chañar Punco vineyard in the southwest of the Calchaquí Valley, which pays precise attention to terroir.

Chañar Punco is a unique sub-region surrounded by the Quilmes Mountains, located southwest within the Calchaquí Valley in Salta. At 2,000m above sea level, it has poor, rocky and calcareous soil with vineyards that run from north to south, which helps winds from the north improve the microclimate of the canopy.

Around eight barrels of El Esteco’s Chañar Punco field blend wine is produced each year – the producer’s icon wine – from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, El Esteco is hoping to create a second vineyard of equal status within its portfolio, and produce its second icon wine, with the cultivation of El Socorro –  a 175 hectare, 1,800 metres above sea level estate situated on steep, rocky land in Cafayate, Salta.

“We started to see the potential in Chañar Punco,” explained winemaker Alejandro Daniel Pepa. “We found the difference in the mountains and in the rocky soil. Then we found in our vineyards a beautiful place called El Socorro. We started with Punco, but found very similar lands in El Socorro. It is more in the mountain and more rocky and the climate was similar. In this moment we started in the vineyard and the project. For us it will be incredible.”

Just 17 hectares of El Socorro’s 175 hectare rocky landscape is currently planted, with the team hoping to plant a further 28 hectares in total due to the difficulty in clearing its rocky soils for planting.

“We had to get government permission to get the vegetation removed to plant,” explains viticulturist Francisco Xavier Tellechea. “That took two years. The next step was to contact an enterprise that could take a photograph of the land so we could study the rocky conditions. We saw that there were some islands with less rock than the rest. So we decided to work these areas first. Then we took off the natural vegetation and getting rid of the rocks. We had 100 people working on this.”

Uncultivated vineyards cost around US$14,000 a hectare in Cafayate, but it cost El Esteco this alone simply to remove the rocks from the site in order to plant, Tellechea told the drinks business. 

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A lone cactus stands tall among El Esteco’s El Socorro vineyard. Cacti are protected by law in Argentina.

The efforts of El Esteco are indicative of a wider focus on terroir throughout Argentina, with winemakers paying increasing attention to their soils, vineyard management and vinification in order to better express their region’s individual characteristics.

“This is happening,” said Tellechea when asked about winemakers’ efforts to formally demarcate their land from one another. “There are many important wineries that are trying to do this. They get the AOC and appellations. Here we call them geographical indications. To get that you have to study the region and soil and the climate and prove that it is different from neighbouring land. Many wineries in Mendoza are trying to protect their lands as in France and Europe to say this is different to my neighbour. That is something that is starting and is going to become more common.”

The first 17 hectares of El Socorro have been planted with Malbec and Cabernet Franc, with the team planning to plant more Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in the future.

“We don’t plan on planting other varieties,” said Tellechea. “The idea is to have the icon vineyard in northern Argentina. I think [El Socorro] will have its first harvest in two years from now. The idea is to build a chateau and a very small winery where these grapes can be vinified. We don’t have a brand or anything. We have to think about that, but this is the first step.”

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