Wines with altitude: Growing grapes in Salta, Argentina

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Drinks: Wines

Salta is the highest wine-growing region on the planet. But as well as producing fresh, aromatic Torrontés, the serious elevation also makes for some genuinely high quality red wines, as David Williams and a team of visiting UK sommeliers discover


It’s become something of a travel book cliché to say that Argentines like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans who just happen to find themselves in South America. But when you stroll around the streets of Buenos Aires, you quickly understand how the idea has taken hold. With its wide boulevards, landscaped parks, chic boutiques and crumbling 19th century architecture, Argentina’s capital feels like a slightly down-at-heel Madrid. Its people, too, look European, which isn’t surprising as most can trace their roots back to Spain or Italy.

Nobody would say the same about Salta province, however. Up in the north-west, near Argentina’s border with Bolivia, Europe seems very far away. Sure, there’s plenty of colonial architecture – the Spanish imprint of geometric street plans around a large central square or plaza is as ingrained in Salta’s towns as anywhere else in the continent. But there is a much more quintessentially Latin American feel to the place, which is explained, at least in part, by the fact that, in a country where indigenous people make up fewer than 1% of the total population, in Salta it’s closer to 20%. 

Jo Eames - Jo Eames, wine buyer at Peach Pub CompanyThere’s certainly nothing remotely European about the landscape. The four-hour road trip from Salta City, the province’s capital, to Cafayate, a peaceful town in the heart of the winemaking area of the Calchaquí Valley, is often, and accurately, described as otherworldly. 

The first half of the journey is routine enough, as you make your way through tobacco and sugar cane fields, dotted with small farming villages. Then, as you begin to climb in altitude, the population thins out and the landscape dramatically changes – the road passes alongside dry river beds through a series of plunging gorges, the colours of the rock shifting through a spectrum that runs from terracotta to aquamarine and back again with each, bone-jangling turn. As Jo Eames, wine buyer at the Peach Pub Company says: ‘It’s fantastically beautiful and varied.’ Or as Joseph Rorke, sommelier at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, puts it even more succinctly: ‘Completely stunning.’

By the time you get to Cafayate, you’ve climbed to 1,500 metres above sea-level and the air is noticeably thinner and fresher. And you soon begin to appreciate Salta’s USP: nowhere else in the world produces wines at such high altitude. Vineyards are routinely planted at 1,700m and more, while Bodegas Colomé’s vineyard at El Arenal in Altura Maxima, a further three hours to the north-west of Cafayate, stands at a world-record-busting altitude of 3,111m, some 2,000m higher than its nearest European rival. It makes Mendoza, where producers make much of the 1,200-metre-high vineyards of Tupungato and Vista Flores, seem like the valley floor. And the effect, according to Alejandro Pepa, chief winemaker at one of Cafayate’s largest wineries, Michel Torino, is ‘excellent conditions for growing wine.’

HOT & COLD

‘The most important thing is the difference between the daytime and the nighttime temperatures: we have very long warm days with lots of sunlight, but we also have very cool nights,’ Pepa continues. ‘In the wines, this produces concentration. We get very good alcohol levels, great colour, strong flavours and good acidity.’

People making wine here have

been gifted some tremendous

natural advantages

It sounds almost too good to be true, but the statistics tend to confirm Pepa’s observations. Temperatures during the growing season regularly reach 38°C in the day, before plunging as low as 12°C in the night – a fairly significant thermal amplitude in anyone’s book. There are, on average, 330 days of sun each year. Rainfall averages at just 200mm in a year, meaning that irrigation, on the poor, deep, sandy soils is essential. ‘These are fantastic conditions for growing wine,’ says Tim Gould, manager of Hawksmoor, approvingly. Rorke agrees: ‘People making wine here have been gifted some tremendous natural advantages: the sunshine hours, the altitude, the thermic amplitude, the draining soils – everything’s in place for making amazing wine.’

Tim Gould - Tim Gould, manager at HawksmoorSuch, at least, is the theory, but what of the practice? Or rather, what of the wines themselves? Our group of four intrepid on-trade explorers were given every chance to test how well the winemakers of Salta are making use of their natural advantages. Their tour took in a broad spread of producers around Cafayate, ranging from the region’s two biggest operations, Michel Torino and the Pernod Ricard-backed Etchart, to the smaller family operations of Bodega El Transito, Familia Muñoz and El Porvenir. They made another four-hour trip to the tiny settlement of Molinos, where Swiss billionaire Donald Hess (of the Hess Collection in California, Glen Carlou in the Cape and Peter Lehmann in Australia) has installed a boutique hotel alongside his winemaking facilities at Colomé.

As the tour progressed, one theme quite quickly became apparent – that Salta is wedded to Torrontés every bit as much as Marlborough is to Sauvignon Blanc. Like Kiwi Savvy, Torrontés, with its powerful aromatics, comes in for some stick for being a bit one-dimensional. Though Loic Avril, sommelier at The Fat Duck, was intrigued by its diversity.

‘There are very different styles, depending on which type of soil and area you are in and how it is produced – whether or not you have some oak-ageing or not,’ he says. ‘It has the same basic flavours wherever you go, but you find some differences in the elegance and the freshness, and whether or not you have some exotic character.’

KEEP IT FRESH

As a whole, the group tended to prefer the lighter, fresher styles, produced using cool fermentations in stainless steel, over the heavier, more oxidised, traditional styles. ‘The ones I didn’t like lacked acidity, which plays a really vital supporting role in Torrontés, giving it a linear structure; if a wine didn’t have that acidity it didn’t work, it couldn’t carry,’ says Rorke. ‘Some people are putting it in oak, but I don’t think that really works with Torrontés, which is a nice aromatic fresh variety, with a nice flavour profile, but essentially a simple wine.’ 

Wine glass (close focus) - Close focus of wine glass‘I particularly liked the ones that really captured the very delicate florality, like spring flowers, and they had a really light, dry finish,’ adds Eames. ‘They would fit very nicely into a slot on my list I call the “tall green bottle slot”, which is for interesting wines that I know are never going to sell very much in my venues – things like Gewürztraminer or Picpoul de Pinet – but which add interest.’

But Salta is about more than just Torrontés. ‘When you’re in England, you tend to think of Salta as being Torrontés country and nothing else,’ says Gould. ‘So it was a bit of a surprise to see how much effort they’re putting into Malbec and other red varieties, and some of them – though not all of them – are fabulous.’

Not that there aren’t challenges involved in making great reds in Salta. ‘Where I didn’t like the wines, there was an over-ripe fruit character – a jammy edge,’ says Rorke. ‘There are much higher stakes: everything’s in abundance, so if something’s not right it’s very noticeable.’

Other red varieties beside

Malbec are making waves in Salta

In many cases, however, producers have managed to harness that concentration to make distinctive, powerful wines. As with the rest of Argentina, many of these draw on Malbec, both in varietal wine and as a key component of blends. ‘We’ve had some nice Malbecs,’ says Eames, ‘and compared to Mendoza they are leaner, with a lot on the nose, but not so much of that big fruit.’

But other red varieties are also making waves in Salta, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and perhaps most intriguingly for the group, Tannat.

‘The Tannat here is very interesting,’ comments Avril. ‘It has a nice spiciness, with a very rich, aromatic, complex character. It’s very different to Madiran – it’s not light, because Tannat is not that kind of grape, it’s full-bodied, but it has some very nice characteristics.’

As the region continues to develop, it seems Tannat may become as much of a flagship as Torrontés. As Gould says: ‘It really seems to be an upcoming region. It has great potential for making top, top quality wine. As with the rest of Argentina, you feel that as it gets more winemaking experience and understanding of what it does well, it will just get better and better. It could soon be catching up with the best of Europe.’


FROM THE SOMMELIERS

Jo Eames, wine buyer, Peach Pub Company

Jo Eames (b&w) - Black & White photo of Jo Eames, wine buyer at Peach Pub Company‘Salta is cowboy country really. But that gives it a great deal of charm and it’s also fantastically beautiful. Some producers here are doing what they ought to do, rather than what they want to do, but the best producers were confident and composed and I think they do a really great job.

‘I already have a Malbec on the list in all my pubs, and don’t think I’d have space to add more. But I could imagine one of the Amarone-style blends working as a straight swap for an Amarone on my list, and think I would be happy to give a Torrontés a go in the changing aromatic white slot. It could be less expensive than an Albariño or a Verdelho.’

Loic Avril, sommelier, The Fat Duck 

Loic Avril - Loic Avril, sommelier at The Fat Duck‘I was very impressed by some of the producers we visited – the best places had some understanding of the terroir they are working with and making some very complex and very classic styles. In my opinion the question of emotion and approach is more important than the altitude really. It’s not because of the altitude that a wine tastes the way it does, it’s because of the philosophy.’

Joseph Rorke, sommelier, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons 

Joseph Rorke - Joseph Rorke, sommelier at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons‘Wherever we were in Argentina, what stood out for me was the quality of the winemaking – producers who had made the best of the great fruit they get. In Salta we tried some really gorgeous wines – and the region hasn’t even reached it’s full potential yet.’

Tim Gould, manager, Hawksmoor 

Tim Gould (b&w) - Black & White photo of Tim Gould, manager at Hawksmoor‘Everyone pigeonholes Argentina as “Malbec, Malbec, Malbec”, but I was impressed by how much the country has got to offer in terms of other grapes. Things like Tempranillo – which really stood out in some of the blends we tried – and Cabernet Franc. It was interesting that what I found in the country didn’t always conform to the idea I had of Malbec before I left. The producers make a lot of different styles.’


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November / December 2009

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