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Salta - Wines on Top of the World

My affection for Argentina dates back to the late 90s. The people, the culture, the grandiose scenery, the fishing (of course) in beautiful Patagonia and, naturally, the beef and wine. Back then it was inexpensive malbec from Mendoza, the peso was pegged to the pound and the best bottle I could buy in a posh shop in Buenos Aires cost $11. The alcohols were moderate, most of the wine was downed locally (and forgettable), and only a few names strove for quality.

Now exports have gone wild, flying winemakers jetted in, state of the art designer wineries built and, unfortunately, we have a vicious circle of triple inflation: rising alcohols, inflated critics’ scores and gravity-defying prices. My $11 back then would be easily $250 now. Or a lot more.

The whites were pretty much unheard of internationally, but now Catena’s top White Bones/Stones from the Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary is on sale at over a hundred euros. I understand the high-altitude work, research and effort, and the desire to claim your place on the world’s top stage, but if you are seeking cool climate limestone terroir wines (which is the whole point there), then I have a few thousand hectares of it right here in France. I have tasted (of course young) examples of some of the top Argentine whites, and I am delighted to see none other than Meursault God Jean-Marc Roulot consulting in Patagonia at Chacra, and the restrained style of the wines does remind me of Chablis, but at that price here in France, taking the speculative icons Raveneau and Dauvissat out of the picture, I can buy pretty much any Chablis I want. And, for that matter, most village wines from the Cote de Beaune, a lot of good premier crus and a few Corton-Charlemagne grand crus to boot. It’s a very grown-up stage to compete on. And to do so genuinely, you need to see how a 10 or 15 year old wine compares, which of course today is nigh impossible as most of the vineyards are in their relative infancy.

Having just bought up a whole shop’s stock of an unknown negociant’s delicious village Meursault Narvaux 1990 (yes, 32 years old) for 62 euros a bottle, well, go figure… Anyway, let’s face it, I live 2.5 hours from Chablis and 3.5 from Beaune, so buying chardonnay (or pinot) ‘elsewhere’ is mainly a matter of academic interest. I’d rather find indigenous grapes abroad, which is a fascinating new ball game.

Which of course Argentina has, but Torrontes is somewhat of an acquired taste, very muscat-like grapey, floral and aromatic. If you like gewurztraminer and viognier this might be up your street. To be honest, beyond the first glass, I struggle. I love the idea of it, but not so much the gustatory reality. Thus, I stuck to the ubiquitous malbec, though at the edge of my radar I noted blips about high altitude torrontes on the desert alto-plano up north. One day maybe, but not a priority.

Malbec, yes okay it is technically ‘d’origine francais’ and Cahors may be the home of ‘cot’ (malbec) and it also used to be included in Bordeaux a century ago, but I suspect most people would now admit that it’s found a new home in the Andes. And so, when I am in Argentina, I always drink it – for much the same reason that I avoid other French grapes abroad. I’ve had very good cabernets there but so what, I have hundreds on my doorstep here, and, as said, the top malbecs now make Bordeaux look like good value.

The trouble was that since buying that first bottle of Cavas Weinert back in 1999, that miserable inflation seems incessant. The big names are all into triple figures which frankly is beyond my pay grade, and I am sorry, but I do not think malbec is yet grand cru Burgundy. But there is one other factor that is also ever-rising, and much more interesting. Height. Metres. Up the mountain slope. The search is well and truly on for cooler climates way up high in Mendoza, in Altamira and Gualtallary, at above a thousand metres. The temperature is cooler, the light different, the growing season longer. It’s risky, but if Nature allows, the aromatics are better, and the elegance far superior. Interesting.

But as all the top bodegas rush in, the search for that elusive El Dorado vineyard in the mountains sharpens, as do the prices. Yes, the hundred mark is now almost mundane, and two hundred (pounds/dollars/euros) has become old hat. Ouch. Not, alas, for my wallet. The impatience and desire to fast track onto the world’s top stage is commercially understandable, but in France and Italy they have taken centuries to gain experience and prove their worth. Sadly, these days so much depends on marketing, brand and hype from critics that one can pitch a first release new vineyard at prices that make you wince.

So, what to do? I’ve already written about the shift further south, rather than further up high, and Patagonian wines do seem less heavy and less overcharged with fruit, alcohol and winemaking. But then there is still that northern blip on the radar. And it’s getting stronger.

When I was last in Patagonia, I think I was probably on the same BA flight as the well-known wine critic Tim Atkin. By chance I also followed him to Patagonia, way south into the Chubut province and having recognised his Instagram picture of the ‘Throne in the Clouds’ mountain, that was framed across the river in my bedroom window, I thought I should literally stroll 5 minutes up the road and visit the new winery. I have never met him, but as well as being a Master of Wine (the ultra-qualification), he seems to write with knowledge, taste and restraint, rather than the often-ridiculous cornucopia of ever-more excessive descriptors and sky-high scores that you see so often now in tasting notes. I genuinely don’t know what half of the things are, that these uber critics can apparently discern in a glass of fermented grape juice. But Tim avoids such drivel, and his only flash of excess is his line in marvellously colourful shirts.

So, when I saw his Argentina report come out, I grabbed it, mainly to see what he said about Patagonia, as well as what he thought about those heady wines in Mendoza. I then collected my daughter from university where she is reading Spanish (& Italian). Not that we need an excuse to drive to those two countries, but always good to have another one! And when she announced that she’d be studying some of the Latin American school of literature, it was obvious that I needed to introduce her to Argentina.

But where? We basically had to squeeze in a week after Christmas (their summer of course) and given the time constraints, I thought we’d better keep it relatively close, ie up north. The capital obviously, and then maybe the Iguazu falls and a place I’d long wanted to visit due to its colonial architecture and desert cactus red mountain scenery. Salta, the one part of the country I’d missed and needed to see.

Which was when those blips on the radar began to bleep fortissimo. And then I remembered Tim’s report. Put two and two together and by chance, (though of course nobody believes me, and all presume I had premeditated this), I discovered that we would be driving past the highest vineyards in the world and staying in a town next to two of the best bodegas. An unpremeditated coincidence. Honestly.

I call it fate. With a capital F.

As Salta was originally best known for its Torrontes grape, I guess we should start there, even though as said it’s not really my cup of tea, the aromatics being a bit too strong and spicey. Still, the prices are low, and it is true that the Salta versions offer quite a lot of bang for your buck.

The Amauta 2021 from El Porvenir came in at a refreshing 12.5% and an even more refreshing 11 pounds in a wine shop in UK. The colour was I admit somewhat alarming in its absence – it looked like a slightly frosty glass of water. But one sniff dispelled that as the floral, very grapey torrontes signature was on display, quite rich on the palate but with a rather herbal, bitter and slightly salty finish. It reminds me of a more elegant form of muscat.

Hopping to another top winery, El Esteco, their Old Vines version dates back to plantings in 1945, so you have 70+ year old vines and for all that you are still only about twice the Amauta price – a level where in Burgundy you basically get almost nothing other than the generic Bourgogne if you are lucky. The 2020 was also pale with a touch of green, though did look more like wine than water, again very aromatic grapey-floral nose, but with a ripe yellow fruit centre, nice orangey acidity and a tooth coating finish that was also bitter, almost salty. The similarities were clear, but this was a definite step up and I wonder how it will age, I’d like to try one in a few years’ time as Tim rates it very highly.

One thing is for sure, the quality and winemaking is remarkable for the price if you like the flavour profile of the grape. Remaining unfashionable has significant benefits for the consumer. I just wish malbec was similarly overlooked…

The drive from Salta (city) to Cachi is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever done, as you suddenly wind through the quebredas (ravines) with cacti popping up everywhere and in flower, the hillsides brick red. At the top the temperature plummets, you are lost in the clouds and the altometer reads 3,200 metres. You then descend through the national cactus park Los Cardones to Cachi, still over 2,500 metres high and surrounded by wineries, snow clad mountains, cactus, aloe vera and simply unbelievable scenery.

The village is small, white and very pretty. It is also undeveloped, no luxury wine spas, 5 star wine hotels or star chef restaurants. Not yet. Bliss. Remoteness has its benefits.

It was also where we unexpectedly met Mecca, or the Altura Maxima wine from Colome, at 3111m in the sky the highest (or second?) vineyard in the world. That’s over ten thousand feet, higher than the Pyrenees, and well up the Alps. A true mountain vineyard. The winery is in fact further south off the road to Cafayate, and given that the road is dirt track, full of stones, rocks, mud and, in places, ditches, it’s a total nightmare to drive in a low slung cheap hire car. We had a lose rock whack the undercarriage so that we were leaking petrol, then the road disappeared into mud at a river crossing (it had rained heavily the day before) and then submerged into a ditch. You also have no cellular phone network, so when we got stuck in the mud as the road vanished, we had to wait for some very kind farmers to help push us out. An extra 50km to and from the Colome vineyard on more dirt road was just not going to happen. Do not attempt it in an old ‘saloon car’, you need 4WD and big tyres.

So, when I saw the ‘premium wines’ section of the wine list in Cachi, it had two top names both in terms of altitude and price. Unfortunately in Argentina they do not seem to have really got the restaurant, or sommelier act in place at all, so most wine lists carry no vintages and no information other than grape variety. I thus rather embarrassedly asked our poor waiter (who was the only man serving 12 tables, waiter, sommelier and everything else all in one) if he could bring the two top wines. Both were 2015 so had some age thank heavens, but the first was 15.3%. Ouch. The second was the Altura Maxima, the most expensive on the list. Luckily, I bit the bullet and bought it.

Luckily? It was about 120 euros on the list which is the good side of Argentine dining – unlike UK or France, the wine prices in smart restaurants are close to retail, not 2 or 3 times higher. I saw it in a wine shop in Cachi the next day at 130 euros, and thinking that we were going to Cafayate, the main wine area and town full of wine shops, I did not buy one to bring home. Of course, it was the last time I saw a bottle… When I got home, I desperately looked on the internet and found the 2017 for 115 euros in France, a phenomenon I have come across before whereby top Argentine wine is cheaper here than there. I suspect it’s a matter of patriotic pride versus old world snobbery – the rich Portenos from Buenos Aires are happy to spend big money on their local top wines, but in Europe 100 euros plus for malbec is considered a stretch and at that price there is a ton of wine at frankly better value from more famous regions. Thus the top wines of, say, Catena are much cheaper in smart shops in London than Buenos Aires (though still too much in my opinion). Odd.

Anyway, that first night turned out to be our one chance to sample Salta’s top wine and thankfully we did. As you may have gathered I do not like high alcohol wines and am always highly suspicious of American critics’ comments of ‘you can’t taste the alcohol’ but I here I have to admit you could neither taste nor feel it at all. But nor was it a blockbuster bomb of a wine. No, the aromatics were very elegant and floral for malbec, touch of leather, a certain herbal minerality and, for 14.9%, yes, elegance. The bottle finished too early and we’d have happily had a glass more. Next morning we were fit as fiddles and ready to buy some to take home to the cellar, which of course we never did…

It can be difficult to disassociate objectively the magic of a place on holiday from the cold reality of tasting quality, so I’d really like to age it a bit more and retry at home, but in general I love going to Argentina so I like malbec, but to be honest it would not otherwise feature in my top half dozen red grape varieties. It tends to be all about soft, ripe dark berry fruit, and if well done has lovely ripeness with a juicy finish. But I don’t often find it gains much complexity with age which to me is the necessary attribute of greatness. I suspect global warming and US critics have not helped, as excess alcoholic sweetness tends to mask any sense of place and subsume complexity. Some of the inexpensive wines from the early 90s seem to age more interestingly than more recent higher octane vintages, and I do think the most compelling wines sit at the extremes – either the far south or the high up. But whereas the top vineyards in Gualtallary, Altamira, Adrianna etc in Mendoza undoubtedly deliver, they ‘only’ approach that thousand metres. I used to think that high compared to 250-300m in Burgundy, but Salta is two to three times higher! I wonder if this will be, with time, somewhere that malbec can define a place, dare I say it, terroir?

The Colome winery dates back to 1831, the oldest of them all, though it was the Hess family (the well-known Swiss winemaker and art collector from Napa) who took it over in 1998 and have expanded into the sky. No water supply, nor electricity, but a pre-phylloxera vineyard. Tim puts the Altura Maxima malbec as one of the top half dozen malbecs in the country, an exciting vision of limestone and granite soil, extreme altitude and rare UV sunlight. You also have pinot noir and sauvignon blanc at a mere 12.5%, plus an unoaked Autentico malbec and single vineyard El Arenal up at a mere 2600 metres. I have a lot more homework to do…

If the drive to Cachi is awesome, the Calchaqui Valley down to Cafayate on Ruta 40 is even more so, both in terms of the scenery and the wretched state of the road. It’s also the wine route. But casual drivers beware. Still, you also have the artisans sideroad (lovely, real homemade ponchos – not colourful ones made for tourists) and if you have the 4WD and brave tyres you can divert off to Colome at Molinos. One day I’d like to try their sauvignon blanc and pinot from Altura as well. The last section, the Quebreda de las Flechas is truly memorable. By the way the (much easier, paved) route from Cafayate towards Salta on Ruta 68 is if anything even more renowned for its scenery, and littered with vineyards. As a round trip, if you have the time and right vehicle, the views are unsurpassed and ever-changing.

Cafayate is a small grid town with the usual central square and cathedral, surrounded by an increasing number of vineyards and, obviously big investment. We went to Piatelli for dinner, which is a luxury resort where no expense has been spared. Beautiful but with no sense of place. It could be a 5 star resort anywhere, apart from the epic scenery. We drank the 2020 gran reserve malbec, which was cheap and had a hint of those floral aromatics but seemed to be trying too hard (a bit like the place, perhaps I was being biased) – the finish hard and feeling extracted. Nice enough wine but squeaky clean and at this very young stage, pretty tough.

Sadly we had little time, and arrived with a bit of a panic needing to fix the petrol leak before we drove through the mountains to Salta, and the next day being New Years Eve, I studied Tim and thought I’d pop into his 2 top domaines after Colome – both in Cafayate, but El Porvenir was a very closed wall that seemed only to open for tasting on the hour (I arrived at 3.15pm) and I got to El Esteco at 3,45pm to find that they closed at 4.00.

At least I could buy some wine and admire the scenery but no time for a visit or tasting. It is the most beautiful old school white winery, picture postcard stuff. The vines are trained on quite a high pergola trellis as you can see. Their 2020 malbec from vines planted in 1946 came in at 14%, had those floral aromatics and, I think, will be very interesting given a decade or more.

So, it was more of an aperitif than an in depth trip to Salta, but the palate is truly whetted. Unlike Mendoza it has not yet become an (over) commercial wine destination, prices remain low and apart from Altura Maxima, most of the top wine is 20-40 euros. And given that the

top wine is at 3,111 metres, I think a few euros extra is more than merited given the unbelievable logistics and risk. Besides, it’s delicious!

I would like to taste more aged examples, but maybe I will just have to cellar them and wait. I see that both El Esteco and Porvenir are now available in the airports at reasonable prices which helps, though I don’t want to wait 10 years to taste them all! How they compare to the higher wines from Mendoza I cannot really say, though for sure they currently offer better value and perhaps more refined aromatics. But with now over 60 wineries in Salta, many of them new, and cash flooding in, I wonder how long the unspoilt value will survive? Certainly, in terms of beauty you’d struggle to do better.

One thing is for sure, it’s one of the most stunning wine regions I have ever visited and, for the moment, one of the best value. In which case I am already planning a return trip, but with a little more time to taste and explore.

And a four-wheel drive!

Happy New Year.

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