By Brad Japhe
JANUARY 31, 2018
The wines of Argentina, elegant and diverse, are celebrating an emergence upon the global stage. While most of the revelry is centered around the fertile grape-growing regions of Mendoza, a lesser-known area of the country is quietly producing wines of equal merit. Cafayate is in the midsts of establishing itself as a noteworthy name in oenology.
This high altitude town at the foot of a sprawling, red-rocked valley holds only 12,000 people. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in viticultural stature, brimming with sleek tasting rooms, fine dining and endless rows of vines in every direction.
At 5,600 feet above sea level, Cafayate lays claim to some of the highest vineyards in the world. Beyond the scenic splendor, the elevation results in thick-skinned grapes resistant to more intense solar radiation and big diurnal shifts (daily swings in temperature between day and night). Pressed from this fruit is an aromatic juice, striking a bargain between delicate floral notes and full-bodied texture.
The winemakers at Piatelli Vineyards are experts in the art of expressing this native terroir. They bottle their trademark Grand Reserve Malbec in a stunning hacienda at the foothills of the northwestern Andes. Gentle on the nose, while exploding with jam on the palate, it’s a perfect example of what this part of the world brings to the table – quite literally; the estate operates a well-appointed restaurant overlooking the majestic Calchaquíes Valley. Handmade empanadas and thick slabs of Argentinian beef, hot off the plancha, enhance the scenery, enlivening every sip of finely fermented juice.
Cafayate encapsulates a broad range of styles, not just in the wine, but in the design of the buildings that produce it. While Piatelli is a modern affair, with contemporary facades and state of the art equipment, El Esteco is markedly more classical – inside and out. Founded in 1892, the bodega was the first large-scale commercial enterprise in the region. Today its footprint includes 1,000 acres of vine surrounding an outsized colonial structure, housing not just the winemaking, but a luxury hotel complete with arched courtyards and poolside dining. Beyond the textbook varietals of the country (Malbec, Bonarda, Torrontés), El Esteco wins high praise for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay offerings – the latter of which is also used to form the base of a crisp, extra brut sparkling arrangement.
The town square of Cafayate is a surprisingly hip destination featuring colorful facades, coffee shops, and even its own microbrewery. It’s also home to a handful of modernized tasting outposts, such as Bad Brothers – part winery, part art gallery, adjoining one of the area’s most inventive eateries. A collaboration of two friends spanning the Americas, the genre-bending blends here defy easy categorization. The MaTaCa, for example, unites Malbec with Tannat and Cabernet. It’s big, yet entirely approachable; peppery while simultaneously smooth. It’s a unique drinking experience from start to finish. Pair it with the restaurant’s full-flavored small plates, taking inspiration from modern gastropubs: truffle oil mac n’ cheese and locally focused charcuterie.
Lodging around town is surprisingly accessible, with a range of options spanning hostel to high-end luxury. Many of the hotels maintain a small patch of vineyards, so don’t be surprised to see a speciality bottle of the local produce waiting to greet you after check-in.
Appearing from desert’s edge, almost as a mirage, Cafayate’s very existence is improbable in nature. The nearest major city (and airport) is in Salta – three hours away by car. But its isolation is part of its charm. Those who make the trek are rewarded along the way by one of Argentina’s most awe-inspiring scenic byways, carving its way through a litany of landscapes. Dozens of iconic rock formations are marked off on signposts, each direction of travel affording a separate spectacle. Don’t miss El Anfiteatro, a hidden natural amphitheater carved into the eroded sandstone cliffs.
Although remoteness guarantees this winemaking region won’t ever attract the hordes of tourists familiar to the Napas and Bordeauxs of the world, Cafayate relishes its under-the-radar status. As Argentinian wine becomes increasingly visible, its name will surely be stamped upon more and more bottles exported globally. Yet few will ever actually make it here. Those who do will uncork a mysticism they won’t soon forget.