Jujuy. It’s two hours flight northwest of the Argentina capital on the border with Bolivia, with a long backbone of the Andes and, on top, the Atacama desert with its salt plains and cactus parks. The backdrop is not just a matter of towering mountains and the majesty of the Andes – you find that equally in Patagonia, Mendoza and Salta, but here in Jujuy you add a painter’s palette of colours, a brilliance of light and a crazy array of all shades of the spectrum that begs for Claude Monet and an easel. Indeed, one of the most famous displays is called the Painter’s Palette and spreads behind the small mud-bricked houses (many of them more like shacks) of Maimara and the first vineyard planted here, by Fernando Dupont in 2003, the founding father of modern Jujuy viticulture (there had been wines here in the seventeenth century). The formations are geometric, rows and rows of chevrons, triangles or upside-down Vs, each layer a different colour, merging one into the other. The background summits can be a grey-green that glows when the sun hits them and scowls when it goes behind a cloud and throws dark shadows that shift with the wind, below them the military stripes in blood red and a Fauvist array of brightness. These are not the primary colours of a Dulux paint chart, and I don’t really see how they officially counted the hill of seven colours in Purmamarca and the mountains of fourteen at Hornocal. There is a mixture of so many shades that continually change with the shifting light and shadow, and cover at least every combination of black, white, grey, purple, blue, green, brown, red, pink, yellow and orange. Honestly, I kid you not, and I do not have an artist’s eye. In the Devil’s Throat in Tilcara the rocks went blue, with vertical stripes that could only be seen as purple. Beneath them spread a billion eroded fragments, pebbles of every colour, perfect for the crazy paving and colourful walkways that you see everywhere.
Hornocal the 14 coloured mountains
Underneath all this elemental drama runs a flat valley floor, and a trickle of a river that carves tiny channels through the red clay. If the Quebreda de Humahuaca is impossibly coloured, the river below is impossibly dry, and the valley impossibly green. It is dripping with willow trees, small corn fields and plots of every sort of green vegetable, all screeching with small green-grey burrowing parrots that flash by with yellow-red under their wings. They love to stare at you with their white ringed eyes, perching on top of the cacti that can reach twenty feet high, fingers to the sky. And somewhere in-between all this rather inexplicable greenness are tucked small vineyards, serried rows of Malbec and Torrontes, with maybe some Cabernet thrown in. Tiny plots dotted among the verdant little pastures, the water in the so-called river dribbling along like orange cocoa. If you want terroir…
The mantra is that the high elevation (even higher than most of Salta) gives you thin, unpolluted air, intense sunlight, and a large diurnal temperature difference. I didn’t really understand this until I felt the weather: mountains lost in cloud in the morning, time for a thick fleece for a breakfast stroll. Within an hour you take it off, and by lunchtime I’d be changing trousers for shorts and long sleeves for a T shirt. But by teatime it was time to wrap up again, and the fleece re-appeared for dinner. True mountain weather and three sets of clothing per day. It ranged from ten to thirty degrees daily. As for the intensity of the sunlight, the car temperature gauge said it was under twenty degrees, but it felt five more, and after a short walk we were burning. I guess it’s not just marketing spiel, and you get through a lot of suntan lotion and clothing. You need to remember that the range of peaks in front of you is the height of The Matterhorn or Mont Blanc, and considerably more. Your constricted breathing is a stern reminder.
If you want a more technical angle on it, the intense ultraviolet and wide daily temperature spread gives a longer growing period and affects the development of pigments, tannins, aromas and polyphenols, as well as guaranteeing that refreshing jab of juicy acidity. It must be this that somehow manages that fine balancing act with the high alcohol levels. Unique?
There are only around a couple of dozen wineries here spread over about as few hectares, and the average bottling is obviously in small production. Like in Patagonia, the wind takes care of the bugs, but canopy management is essential to withstand the sun, and as we are in a high desert, irrigation from the Andes is a must. Everywhere in Jujuy and Salta you see that the bottom black line beneath the vine trellis is the irrigation tube. And at El Porvenir and El Esteco in Cafayate they showed how they pergola train the white grapes so that the bunches hang under the horizontal canopy in the shade, whereas the reds are traditionally vertical.
Pergola trained and protected white grapes in Cafayate, El Porvenir
With the altitude, the wind and the cold, coupled with the utter remoteness and lack of international renown, (ever seen a bottle of Jujuy wine let alone tasted one?), you can only admire the dogged determination, you might say lunacy, of the few winemakers who try to eke out a living here. They deserve to succeed, and some of that natural beauty needs to be captured as that poetry in a bottle.
Dupont in Maimara
I did manage to track down the top Dupont bottling in Paris, a Syrah blend, and frankly not much to our taste, heavy, powerful and rather funky. The name I see most in the wine press is Almanacer Andino and we started with their basic white blend which was, well, rather basic and bland, odd in that it contains Torrontes and Sauvignon Blanc, two usually very aromatic varieties. So far not so good. But their reserve Malbec was in the zone, only 14,3%, quite light, with the herbal aromatics that I am beginning to think may be a signature of these high-altitude wines, a far cry from the densely fruit-forward wines of so much of Mendoza. There was a touch of menthol and leather, the 2021 nice now, the 2019 a little drier on the finish. I am not sure how well they will age, but they are nice and for fifteen euros, a snip. A real snapshot of a beautiful place.
More imposing was the Mallku Malbec from Vinedos Yacoraite, which showed the same elements but with more power and some tannins and black licorice. For twenty euros (in the one decent restaurant in Tilcara – El Nuevo Progresso) we were so impressed that we asked where we could find it. Which is altogether another question, as of wine shops there seem to be none, and if you are lucky, you find a shelf with a couple of bottles behind the alfajores (ubiquitous comfort food chocolate biscuits) or in an artisanal shop lurking behind the llama wool ponchos. The restaurant owner gave us the winery card, but it had no address or map, and nor did their website, so though we drove over the (dry) Yacoraite river twice and must have been within a couple of miles of the winery and advertised wine bar, we were frustrated. Annoying as I really wanted to retry a bottle in five years’ time at home. On our search we passed through Uquia and visited the lovely 1691 colonial church right by the road, and across the way somewhere up the mountain was the Moya vineyard of Vino Uraqui which at 3,329 metres is a head above Colome and that highest commercial vineyard in the world. But they are so difficult to locate. Often the only sign (as for the Dupont winery which we did eventually discover) is a hand painted one nailed to a homemade wooden stake. Very artisanal. And then you bump over a dirt track across the river valley floor to get there.
Driving south to the province of Salta, where we’d been last year, I was on a mission to find Colome, or, more to the point, the Altura Maxima vineyard, which was to be another lesson in the difficulty of accessing and/or finding anywhere up here. As we knew, the drive to Cafayate on the infamous Ruta 40 is already over four hours of dirt road, loose stones, holes, hairpins and potential holes, floods and trouble, and the detour to Molinos and back (home to Colome) would add an hour and a half. I was fine with that, but only if we could see the ancient vineyard and its building and taste the three Altura Maxima wines (Malbec, Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc). As it was, I suppose they are so remote that they need fairly rigid forward planning and all that was available was various fixed and quite expensive options with two or three-hour visits that included a light museum that is doubtless very nice, but not our target, and tastings of the lesser wines we already had in the cellar, but no Altura. So, all in all a waste of our time for what we specifically wanted. Disappointing to say the least.
I asked them if I could at least drive to the vineyard up in Payagosta as after all we now had the right truck. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the Altura Maxima is not accessible to the public, but they did say that El Arenal was at the crossroads where the road from El Carril ends, and you turn south at Payagosta onto the infamous Ruta 40. They also, very kindly, said they’d ensure that both our hotel and the wine shop in Cachi were well stocked. For which I owe them thanks.
Just to put the scale into perspective here, it’s not just height, but length. When down fishing in Patagonia, we had driven north to Esquel on, guess what, Ruta 40, and that’s four plane hours south. The road itself runs from way up here almost on the Bolivian border to Rio Gallegos in deepest Patagonia just before you hit Tierra del Fuego. That’s 5,194 kilometres of one continuous highway. I have the T shirt to prove it, from cacti to penguins.
Anyway, we switch-backed up the mountain pass watching the red cliffs and flowering cacti give way to cold greenery and finally the windswept barren slopes over 3,000 metres. We passed a healthy fox and cubs and as we dropped down into the cactus park the families of guanaco were grazing and, finally, we saw the cemetery, the Payagosta sign, and, more to the point, the turn to Ruta 40 and ‘Salta Ruta del Vino’.
But no vineyard. By the time I’d got to the Taberna, its walls painted ‘Vinos de Payagosta – Ruta del Vino’, I knew we’d gone too far. I asked Colome again and they said ‘right behind the cemetery’, so I tried a second time. I guess I am too literal, and the Argentine idea of space is more expansive, but I did find the road alongside the cemetery and a faint track heading into the scrub, so I engaged 4WD and bounced up.
Getting frustrated, I returned to the road and figured I’d just head for the mountains as the vineyard must be someplace up there. Eureka, finally I found rows of Malbec, but it was signposted Cereus and on the wrong side of the track. Wondering if I was ever going to find El Arenal, (at 2600m), I continued until I came across another vineyard this time on the correct side and (at a stretch) behind the cemetery. The Andes were a splendid backdrop, and a flock of parrots gave me a fortissimo welcome. At long last I could step out, breathe in that purity of air (& heat) and get to feel the place. It’s a far cry from the slopes of Cahors or the flat plains of the Medoc. Very, very far.
Payagosta, El Arenal ?!
Of course, I now wanted to experience not just the dust under my feet, but the taste in the mouth, but this is where the Argentine dining scene definitely needs to up its sophistication if it sees itself as a high-class wine destination as in Salta and Jujuy (and often Buenos Aires) the restaurants don’t bother with vintages. So we did find El Arenal on the list, duly ordered it with some excitement and were met with a rather closed, tannic child of a 2021 still very much hiding behind its structure. I think the flavour profile I was hoping for was there, but I really couldn’t tell. They had it in the duty free for a cheap twenty-three euros, but I’ll be 70 by the time we open it to see. That’s the downside of discovering a ‘new’ wine region when you are retired.
It’s only twenty kilometres to Cachi, the prettiest town of them all, whitewashed, clean and calm, none of the endless stray dogs (with all their barking and pooh), noisy tourist buses and stalls and stalls of the same ‘artisanal’ knick knacks. It’s a relative oasis, and El Merced del Alto our favourite hotel. Sure enough they had the top flight Colome and as you can imagine, we dived in.
Now, Pinot Noir for me is somewhat sacred territory and, frankly, Burgundian. If you put aside the current price levels, it seems to me at least to be the one grape that really does thrive best on one small escarpment in France. Apologies for the total lack of objectivity, but we have obviously fallen under the spell (or curse?). Anyway, what did I see but my favourite grape grown at over 10,000 feet high and a mere 10,700 kilometres away from Beaune.
Objectivity? Difficult when you are both a diehard Burgundian fan and sitting in wonderland watching the sun set behind the cacti and flowers with the Nevada de Cachi peaks fading into monochromatic softness, all twenty thousand plus feet of them.
Nevada de Cachi
The colour was a nice pale red, the nose red-fruited, more strawberry and gently candied, reminiscent perhaps of a village Volnay or Chambolle (but, at around 55 euros retail, a lot more affordable despite all the struggles of growing wine on top of a mountain in a desert). It was still quite young, the 12.5% was elegant but lacking a little bit of body, the finish young and still high in acidity. Not a ‘great’ Pinot for sure, but a very nice one and I look forward to seeing how it softens with some more age. It has that ‘sense of place’ in spades.
The next night we went for bust with the Malbec, where our obsession with this vineyard began, Of course I did not know the vintage, and was tense when the same excited waiter as the year before proudly unpacked the now excessive packaging (it comes in its own box) and presented a 2017. 2017: I have it in the cellar and I knew it came in at a gentle 15.5%. Ouch. I don’t think we have ever managed to drink (let alone finish) a French wine at that level. My wife, still happily innocent of the fact, swirled, took a deep sniff and contemplative taste. Was our love affair with this wine, this place, about to come crashing down?
I said nothing, not wishing to spoil the moment, and I know she is even more sensitive to high alcohol than I am.
Encouraging. But how was it with the rose-tinted glasses off and the back label firmly in my mind? Deep, inky black, no surprise there; the usual red & black Malbec fruit but higher toned and more refined; licorice, menthol, leather, those herbs, yes, powerful but somehow it seemed elegant, with nice acidity & balance. Just a super classy glass of wine. I had read critics pronounce elegance, but I am afraid in my bias I’d just presumed them wrong. Mea culpa.
Delicious indeed. And we finished the bottle too quickly.
It’s interesting how much we fall prey to inbred bias. I don’t like high alcohol wines and yet I love Altura Maxima, but if you’d just shown me this bottle and the alcohol level a year ago, I’d have passed it by and chosen something else. Equally, when I see a 115 euro price tag for a bottle of Argentine Malbec my old world snobbishness rises up and I think the price innately too high, as if it’s only us Europeans who have the right to charge expensive price tags for bottles of wine. Stupid. Compare this to any number of Barolo, Brunello, Bordeaux (I don’t even bother mentioning Burgundy) and the value proposition screams at you. And if you stay local, yes, the Altura Maxima Malbec is around three times the price of the other Salta/Jujuy reserve/single vineyard wines, but compared to the heights of Mendoza (Gualtallary, Altamira etc and the wines of Catena’s Adrianna vineyard or Per Se or Zuccardi etc) it comes in at two to three times the altitude and about half the price. And if you compare the other top Malbecs from up here on high with an average reserve Malbec down south, you again find the same equation. Thirty euros gets you nearly everything here but in Mendoza you are way down the pyramid.
Cachi - Puna
The valley in Cachi is broader than in Jujuy and has both the Calchaqui and Cachi rivers to roam between, and we saw various slightly bigger vineyards, always nestled below that fabulous, jagged backdrop. Just like further north, the floor is incongruously verdant, corn again, and on the edges, those cacti, with small birds nesting inside and the ubiquitous parrots atop. The cacti are in fact hollow, and when dead makes a strange wood full of what look like airholes, often used for ceilings and ornaments, light but strong. We drove past one vineyard with an imposing white building, Puna, and almost stopped until I recalled the worst New Year’s Eve dinner we’ve ever had, last year in Cafayate, where the asado was criminally bad, the dessert ran out and the wine was the basic Puna Malbec or Torrontes. We drank it to try to forget the awfulness of the evening (so bad it was almost funny), and perhaps on its own in better humour it would be nice, but I was not tempted to stop by and visit.
But talking of bias, I am not a fan of fat, spicey, overtly floral or very aromatic white grape varieties. Once you get into exotic fruit and lychees, my palate runs for cover. I cannot get on with Gewurztraminer, struggle with Viognier unless it’s something subtle (& expensive) like Vernay’s Condrieu, and I find Muscat just way too grapey-floral-spicey. When I think of Torrontes, what would the descriptors be? Grapey, floral and aromatic. Exotic fruit and lychees.
Being Argentina’s one unique calling card (after all, Malbec is a French import, sorry), I have tried for years to like it. Its heritage is complicated, but there are 3 types of Torrontes in Argentina, the quality one here being the Riojano (totally unrelated to the Torrontes in Spain). The parents seem to be (the red) Criolla Chica and white Moscatel de Alejandria (which definitely carries the most imposing genes). Criolla (or Listan Prieto in Spain) was the Mission grape the Spaniards took to California for sacramental purposes, and it amuses me now to be drinking a descendant of the Jesuits’ religious wine. I think in Chile it would be called Pais and you also see Criolla in Argentina sometimes.
But Salta has become the new Mecca for Torrontes. Down in Patagonia at the fishing lodge, they had the usual Mendoza Chardonnay and Sauvignon but also two Torrontes to try as an aperitif, Colome and Domingo Molina, the first the more varietal and structured, the second a bit softer and more international (though only 5% oak and no malolactic fermentation). Both became my aperitif of choice, though the question was, could I get beyond one very pleasant glassful? Could we actually indulge in a whole bottle for dinner and come out smiling?
The answer came in Cafayate with perhaps the two best examples from the two top estates there, the El Porvenir Laborum Single Vineyard Finca El Retiro and the El Esteco 1945 Old Vines. Both had the signature grapey trait and florality, but in check and with a ripe fruit centre and something slightly green and bitter with a definite tang of salt on the finish. Nice, and at around fifteen euros or less, a bargain. We also tried the Adentro which is the world’s highest Torrontes grown at 2685m, again fresh and with lovely acidity. The wines definitely have far more bite and character up here. As we were there at the end of January, the picking had just started, and I did taste what must have been a Torrontes grape which had exactly the same profile as the El Porvenir (well, it was one of their grapes). In contrast the Malbec was juicy and ripe, but the skins and pips definitely needed that extra month or so.
As you approach Cafayate, wine capital of Salta, the most impressive winery on your left is El Esteco, dating back 130 years with its broad white colonial spread and tower. Their irrigation comes from their own well, and the Quilmes mountains. Without it there would be no wine, just dead, desiccated vines.
If you come in from the other way, the main road from Salta, once you have left the amazing Quebreda de las Conchas with its otherworldly rock formations, canyons and colours, you hit the flat plain and its red clay, or pink sand made up of eons of the wind crushing rock faces. It’s barren but beautiful, but then someone flicks the geological switch, the soil turns to a normal dusty tan sand and vineyards sprout up in every direction.
When I mentioned scale, you really see it here. The Altura Maxima vineyard produces maybe six to seven thousand bottles of its various wines, miniscule and in all it covers thirty hectares. El Arenal is thirty-five hectares, but I think El Esteco manages almost 800 in Cafayate and down further south in Catamarca with their Chanar Punco winery. It is almost industrial, though the winery is still in the original building and due to its thick walls and high ceiling needs no air conditioning apart from the barrel cellar which holds 2,000 barrels and is temperature and humidity controlled. The ‘Bacchus Corridor’ is a big corridor with a statue of the God of Wine at the end and what look like hugely fat white pillars until you look closely and see that they are wine vats, one of them marked 16,782H (that’s in hectrolitres). In the winery room itself they have all forms of containers including concrete eggs and rolling barrels – a clever and simple mechanism whereby you can rotate the barrel manually, hence easing the effort of pump overs or punchdowns. But to top it all (or bottom it out) they pointed out a circular yellow door with a sort of steering wheel on top like a submarine hatch. This one had 2030H on it, a ‘decent’ sized storage tank whilst you awaited bottling.
And yet despite this monumental volume, the wines remain good, though the range is almost bewildering. Cafayate (at 1700m) is on sandier soil and Catamarca (higher at 2,000m) more calcerous, but as so often, we felt at odds with the local choice of the ‘top wines’. For the tasting at the end of the tour, we opted for their choice of their top stuff which was the Chanar Punco and Altimus (their highest wine) both blends of Bordeaux varietals (including Malbec of course). We also had a Merlot and all of them had the colour of local Malbec, were heavily tannic and very dense. To a European palate they offered little (except a lower price) compared to Bordeaux, Tuscany or even much of Napa. The juiciest and best-balanced wine to us was the (cheaper) 1946 Old Vines Malbec and afterwards in the shop I paid a whole euro each for a small slurp of their Partida Limitada Chardonnay and Malbec, both lovely and more restrained wines at around twenty-five euros. That is what I bought but at the winery for some reason they seemed almost an afterthought. I suppose everyone needs to jump onto the Cabernet international bandwagon, though surely it is Malbec that is Argentina’s claim to vinous fame, with Torrontes as the local supporting act?
Again, we experienced a reaffirmation of the vicissitudes of mountain weather. At seven in the morning, the light starts to creep in behind the curtains. Half an hour later the sun is a magnesium flame rising about the Calchaquis range and you need sunglasses for breakfast under an immaculate blue sky thick with birdsong. By lunchtime the clouds are fluffing up and by afternoon the Sierra del Quilmes is glowering over the valley, its forehead hidden in foreboding greyness and spitting the odd drop of rain. Dinner is accompanied by Malbec and, if lucky, a tempestuous celestial display as lightning streaks across the mountains and the vines tremble with thunder. Your smart phone weather forecaster predicts doom and gloom for the morrow but, surprise, as dawn creeps up over the top, the sun bursts through the curtains again.
There is endless poetry in the mountains here, the valleys and the canyons, and endless song in the air. And, for sure, if you search hard enough, you will find some poetry in a bottle too, and at prices that will remind you that beauty is not always the reserve of the rich.