A Wine Lover’s Guide to Cafayate, Argentina
The burgeoning wine region may lack the high-gloss finish of more popular destinations, but that is precisely part of its appeal.
The road to Cafayate has one lane in each direction, with a dusty shoulder for pulling over when the mountain landscape demands a stop. Whimsical red rock formations, frequently compared to the Grand Canyon, line the winding road that leads from the airport in the provincial capital city of Salta to the town of Cafayate and its surrounding wine country. It’s more than a three-hour drive through the northwest corner of Argentina on this narrow road snaking past towers of striated rock sculpted by wind, water, and time.
Upon arrival in Cafayate, it’s telling to note what you won’t see: large parking lots or big groups of English speakers. Instead, common sights include donkeys grazing in the street and gauchos on horseback. In the main plaza, kids playing after school greatly outnumber wine tourists. “Cafayate is not as developed as Mendoza,” says Lucía Romero Marcuzzi, managing director of Bodega El Porvenir, referring to the renowned Argentine wine region roughly 650 miles to the south. “When you arrive in Cafayate, you have the sense that you are discovering a new and remote place.”
But wine lovers are now starting to take note. Cafayate received 149,000 visitors in 2012, but by 2015 that number nearly doubled, growing to 271,000 in just three years. Production at local wineries has expanded, too. At El Porvenir, 350,000 bottles a year are now hitting the market, versus 200,000 bottles three years ago. “There is a higher demand for our wines in external markets,” says Marcuzzi. “New areas like Asia and some countries in Latin America have opened up for us.”
At the heart of this growth is a burgeoning interest in high-altitude wines, with vineyards ranging from 5,400 to almost 10,000 feet above sea level (some of Europe’s highest, in Switzerland and Italy, sit at about 4,000 feet above sea level). “Cafayate has a unique microclimate,” says Marcuzzi. “Warm sunny days and cool nights translate into wines with more color, more aromatics, and great intensity.” At extreme altitude, grapes like Malbec, Tannat, Torrontés, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, and Syrah receive intense sunlight and their skins thicken to protect the fruit against the sun. As a result, grapes take longer to mature and tannins are concentrated. Wines in Cafayate also benefit from snowcap water off the Andes, which helps to flush toxins from the soil and enriches the grapes.
Both the character of the wines and the undiscovered feel of the region are currently calling wine enthusiasts. Cafayate may lack the high-gloss finish of other great wine destinations, but that is precisely part of its appeal. Here, our guide to the region.