Cool-climate Cafayate, high in the Pre-Andes, is showing the rest of Argentina how to do terroir, writes SUSAN KEEVIL

THE Incas left their mark on the Andean tracts of Cafayate but theirs has not been the only conquest of this landscape. Wine has made another.

Cafayate is Argentina’s wine region with ‘altitude’. Perched at well over 1,600m above sea level, with the most foreboding geography of any of the country’s viticultural areas, it’s not surprising that its wines are different. To reach it you must first go to Salta (a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires), then wind your way up a long, switchback road for four hours, climbing into the Pre-Andes.

Along the way you exchange tobacco plantations for red, purple, blue and
yellow canyon formations with rocks in bizarre twisted shapes; fields of cattle for shy llamas and straggled trains of self-herding goats; orange and walnut groves for the occasional pine tree. At the top, you’re on the border with Bolivia, and in the land of panpipes and rattlesnakes, seemingly a long way from the rest of Argentina. Since you ask, it’s pronounced caffa-jartay if you’re local (or American), caffayaté (rhyming with caffe latte) if you’re from elsewhere in the country.

Cafayate’s natural advantage over the rest of Argentina has a lot to do with the fresh mountain air. ‘Remember, there is a big difference between midsummer temperatures here and those in the rest of Argentina,’ says Andres Höy at the palatial Michel Torino estate. ‘Even in February [summer] you have to wear a jumper in Cafayate. And in winter it gets really cold, it can be -6˚C or -16˚C.’ But cold weather gives the vines a chance to sleep. They wake up reinvigorated in the spring when they start to benefit from the region’s 350 annual sunny days.

First to take advantage of these long summer days and cool nights are the white grapes, which retain a delicate natural acidity that’s impossible to achieve (for example) in Mendoza, further south, where blisteringly hot summer temperatures of 40˚C are not unusual. Of the region’s 1,794ha (hectares) under vine – courtesy of Michel Torino, Bodegas Etchart, and Bodegas Peñalba Frías, the three main producers – a
massive 950 are planted to white grapes. And it’s Cafayate’s white wines that you’re most likely to hear about first of all.

This would not seem all that exciting if it wasn’t for the Torrontés grape, which is making a statement as Argentina’s alternative to Chardonnay. ‘Torrontés is so aromatic from up here that people think it’s a spicy Gewürztraminer from Alsace,’ enthuses Victor Marcantoni of Etchart. ‘It’s cultivated all over Argentina, from Rio Negro in the south, right up through Mendoza, Tupungato and La Rioja, and quality improves the further north it goes.’

The mediocre versions en route – forgivable, as Torrontés is not an easy grape to grow – witness this grape being anything from a bland over-filtered Chardonnay-style wine, to a voluptuous peach-fest. By contrast, Cafayate’s have silky acidity, natural crispness, feisty peach-edged fruit, and tempered but still heady aromatics.

Michel Torino gives its citrussy unoaked version a coolish (16–18˚C) fermentation in epoxy-lined cement vats and ensures a certain complexity by using local La Rioja yeasts. ‘We want this wine to be intensely Torrontés,’ says winemaker Santiago Palero – by this, he must mean ‘peachy’. His Don David Torrontés is concentrated, with a well-judged richness.

Chardonnay ticks along nicely in Cafayate, too, but Torrontés beats it hands down for its sheer spicy difference.

Red wine fans should be aware that what’s good for white wines can be equally good for red. ‘Cafayate reds have colour, more texture, more aromatics, and fresh acidity; the terroir really shows through,’ says José Luis Mounier at Etchart. Etchart’s set-up is infinitely more functional than the colonial-style Torino estate, but its wines are no less fine for its great size.

There is a feeling of isolation on these pre-Andean slopes. Winemakers take pride in their difference through distance, and take care to reflect it in the wines.

‘It’s not enough to make good wines – they really have to show the vineyard,’ continues Mounier. ‘If Cabernet Sauvignon is not really right for a region, and you keep getting green, dusty tannins, then you shouldn’t grow it.’ This is a pointed remark, as Cafayate is one of the few regions in Argentina to succeed with Cabernet.

The country’s winemakers continue, in blinkered fashion, to plant it because of the variety’s prestige, but the results are often pale, fatigued, and decidedly weak. Mounier gives an informative comparative tasting showing Etchart’s Cabernet from Cafayate (blackcurranty, bold, grippy and ripe) against the sister company’s wine from Mendoza, which is black-fruited and one-dimensional in comparison.

The differences between the two regions show through clearly too in Malbec. The Cafayate wine has expressive figgy liquorice characters, pure-fruited, lively and intense; the Mendoza version is ripe and smoky, but ungenerous by comparison. Merlot from Cafayate is smooth and molasses-rich, where the wine from Mendoza is smoky and quite lean.

Mounier also expresses frustration that many of Argentina’s estates spend more energy in the pursuit of their next supermarket contract than in honest representations of their ‘terroir’. At Michel Torino, a further side of Cafayate’s distinctive character becomes clear. While Andean snowmelt floods the southern furrow systems on a daily basis, the Cafayate estates adopt a more questioning attitude. How much water do we need?

‘We only have 50–100mm of rain a year,’ says Andres Höy, ‘so we need to add some, but carefully.’ Torino is experimenting with an Australian program that alternates irrigation from one vine row to another every seven days, then swaps back again. This offers a certain amount of dehydrating stress to the unwatered vine, which, they hope, will improve the concentration of the berries. It’ll be a few more years before such experiments come to fruition. But less water/better drainage could be the answer to the country’s problems with Cabernet.

A natural edge

Cafayate is not the only cool region of Argentina. Similar potential is found in the wines from the Cold Zone, down on the Rio Negro in northern Patagonia. One of the most southerly wine zones of the world, the wines here are naturally high in acidity. (Top growers: Humberto Canale and Infinitus.)

Mendoza’s cool pockets also show potential. The highest vineyards at Tupungato (1,400m) are the best – they’re just as frost-prone as Cafayate’s and also have good potential for Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir. (Top growers are Nicolas Catena, Salentin and Balbi.)

Both these areas, however, have the disadvantages of frequent hailstorms and horrifically high winds. And neither has the isolationist determination to succeed against the odds. Cafayatans might be mocked by the rest of Argentina for being non-cattle eaters – steak is not routine fodder – but their wines are doing a lot to emphasise the failings of the rest of viticultural Argentina.

Susan Keevil is a freelance wine writer

WINES WITH ALTITUDE

Bodegas Etchart, Chardonnay 2001
Highly perfumed, a touch smoky on the palate from time in barrel, but with lively buttery fruit and good acidity: fresh and crisp to the finish.

Bodegas Etchart, Torrontés 2001
A firm, dusty peaches aroma, and pure peachy character on the palate: great clarity, great tangy natural acidity to match.
£4.99–5.99; Prd

Michel Torino, Coleccíon Torrontés 2001
Strong sweet nose of peaches with firm, Chardonnay-ish palate and a crisp citric finish. Overall, full and rich.
£5.29–6.25; C28, Csv, Hns, Luc, Mkn, Plo, Vlg

Michel Torino, Don David Torrontés 2001
Crisp, lively fruit, well-judged use of oak gives a smooth roundness in addition to the spritzy peachstone and peachy fruit flavours.
£6.65–8.13; Csv, Hns, Luc, Mkn, Plo, You

Bodegas Etchart, Cafayate Syrah 2001
A meaty, cherryish nose and a deliciously rounded palate. Black, pruney fruit is well integrated, notes of sweet vanilla (oak), ripe tannins, and fine acidity to balance.
£4.99–5.99; Prd

Bodegas Etchart, Cafayate Malbec 2001
Slightly medicinal, spicy nose, fragrant; ripe, rounded palate with soft acidity, integrated tannins, smooth. mellow plums and spiced red fruits.
£4.99–5.99; Prd

Michel Torino, Don David Malbec 2000
Sweet and vanillary on the nose, rounded, lots of redcurrant and figs, rich-textured fruit. Intense and chocolatey on the palate. Has fine, lasting presence and firm acidity.
£6.65–8.25; BcW, Csv, Hds, Hns, Plo, WoI, You

Michel Torino, Unwooded Bonarda 2001
Raisins and figs on the nose, acidity quite sharp but fruit is ripe, smooth and attractive. Raisiny and concentrated on the finish – sees no wood and doesn’t need it.
N/A UK

Michel Torino, Coleccíon Tannat 2001
A surprisingly delicate, blackcurranty nose. Strong liquoricey tannins on the palate, plus long, pruney ripe fruit, inky, dense and long. Lovely. Measured acidity keeps it lingering.
N/A UK

Written by Susan Keevil