Geoffrey Dean
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

High and mighty: Salta

The long (and winding) road to Salta from Cafayate

Of all the wine tourism regions in South America, none can be more dramatically beautiful than Salta in Argentina’s far north. Extreme altitude terroir, stunning mountainous or semi-desert terrain, and the wonderfully quaint little town of Cafayate combine to make this a special destination. Throw in outstanding wines and the friendliest of welcomes, and you have all the ingredients for a memorable wine tour.

Salta is home to the world’s highest vineyards, with Colomé’s Altura Maxima site planted at 3,111m. China has a hectare of vines at 3,500m, but it hasn’t produced any wine yet. Salta’s 33 wineries are for the most part situated between 1,700 and 3,000m in the picturesque Calchaqui Valley, which stretches 500 km from the north of the province into two provinces further south, Tucuman and Catamarca.

Making friends with the locals

Cafayate, reached by driving through a startlingly beautiful 40-mile long canyon – Quebrada de las Conchas, is the base from which to visit most of these bodegas. One of Argentina’s must-visit locations worthy of an extended stay, Cafayate, with its colonial architecture and laid-back rhythm, is hard to leave.

There is a range of excellent accommodation choices that start with the top-end Grace Hotel on the Estancia de Cafayate just south of the town. If this offers modern luxury, the Patios de Cafayate has a more old-fashioned, country-house feel.

It’s a very comfortable place to stay, and has the advantage of being part of the celebrated El Esteco bodega. This prestige producer has 1,200 hectares of vines, many very old, and exports umpteen labels from entry-level to super premium to as many as 55 countries.

The Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, just to the west of the town at the foot of San Isidro Hill, is another excellent hotel, and more boutique than the name suggests. It overlooks vines, while El Porvenir’s accommodation is in the middle of its own vineyards at Finca El Retiro. It has three options, all good ones: bed-and-breakfast in the owners’ house (February excluded due to harvest), rent the guesthouse next door, which sleeps six, or stay in the converted stable-block (one bedroom with kitchenette). Part of El Porvenir’s appeal is its quiet tranquillity, allied to the fact that it is still walking distance into town for bars and restaurants.

The rather glorious Grace Hotel on the Estancia de Cafayate

One restaurant that shouldn’t be missed is Bad Brothers, named after the wine brand created by winemaker Agustín Lanus and his American business partner, David Galland, a marketing expert who settled in Cafayate when, as he put it, “I found paradise here.”

The Bad Brothers wines are all about freshness and drinkability, with Lanus’ Sunal labels (a play on ‘sun and altitude’, but also his name spelt backwards) being high-quality examples of Malbec from micro-terroirs.

Cafayate has a host of appealing cellar doors, including El Porvenir, El Esteco, Domingo Molina and San Pedro de Yacochuya. Estancia Los Cardones, a short drive south of Cafayate in Tolombon, is also well worth a visit.

Meanwhile, Vallisto’s wines are available both at the Pancha restaurant and Vino Tinto wine shop in Cafayate. The El Porvenir winery, in the middle of town, is a fascinating mix of historical and new buildings.

Giant old foudres, made from local algarrobo wood, are a splendid adornment (being long retired). Winemaker Paco Puga produces three different styles of Torrontés, with his oak-fermented Laborum label coming from 70-year-old vines at Finca El Retiro. Paul Hobbs, a longtime former consultant, led the successful quest for fresher fruit with more purity in El Porvenir’s impressive range of wines, which includes a 100% Tannat.

Estancia Colomé is enjoying a spike in tourism

The drive up several kilometres of dirt-track to two neighbouring high altitude wineries at 2,000m handsomely rewards visitors, both for the high quality of the wines and the magnificent views.

The Domingo Molina bodega, run by the Domingo brothers – winemaker Rafael and viticulturalist Osvaldo – produces some superb single varietal wines, including Torrontés, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Meanwhile, Pablo Etchart crafts wines of comparable quality at his San Pedro de Yacochuya winery, which features the oldest vines in commercial production in Cafayate dating back to 1913. Michel Rolland still acts as a consultant after Etchart’s father originally recruited him to help combat green or tough tannins.

Not far from San Pedro are Vallisto’s cacti-dotted vineyards, where a new tasting room/restaurant will open early next year with glorious views. Winemaker Pancho Lavaque crafts a string of fine reds, including an enticing Barbera and a classy Criolla 2018 from very old, low-yielding vines. Vinified like Pinot Noir, the latter has a similarly light colour and body.

No review of Salta would be complete without mention of the wineries in the Molinos sub-appellation, 120 km northwest of Cafayate. It is here that the celebrated Colomé winery is located, although getting there can be a challenge, as this correspondent found when heavy early February rains led to rockfalls that blocked the narrow mountain road. Bodega Tacuil is also situated in Molinos, at 2630m, where the Davalos family make impressive wines without any oak influence.

The last word should go to Rafael Domingo. “We want to show Salta in our wines, which is why we use no new oak at all,” he says. “They are all about the freshness and spiciness you get from our high altitude.”

One Response to “High and mighty: Salta”

  1. Marcelo says:

    Being born and raised in Salta, I really enjoyed this article. However, I would like the author to correct a minor spelling mistake. In the second paragraph, it reads “the picturesque Colchaqui Valley.” It’s Calchaqui, not Colchaqui.

    Kind regards from Argentina

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