Red Rocks and Wine Tasting: Cafayate, Argentina

Red rocks and desert. Doesn’t sound like the right conditions for a wine region, does it?

Wineries Near Cafayate, Argentina
Cafayate Wine Region

The name Cafayate, another of Argentina’s winemaking regions, doesn’t quite have the same ring as Mendoza. But there’s something about the sandy soil — good for irrigation control and filtering – that finds expression in the local grapes, including the local white wine varietal of choice, Torrontes.

So when we rented a car with friends and drove around northwestern Argentina for a week, we made sure to spend a little time sampling the local vintage in Cafayate. The outskirts of town is flush with vineyards while Cafayate itself is scattered with tasting rooms.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes Growing Outside Cafayate, Argentina
Cabernet Sauvignon grown in vineyards outside Cafayate

Torrontes: A Nice Surprise

While Mendoza is known for its Malbec and Patagonia for its Pinot Noir, Cafayate is known for Torrontes, a white wine varietal closely identified with the region.

Upon first sniff, the Torrontes aroma is virtually unmistakable. Jasmines, peaches, roses and bits of citrus hints are so aromatic and fresh that you might be tricked into thinking you are about to drink something sweet. The result: something understated and dry.

Refreshing and unique, Torrontes is fast becoming one of the new adored babies of the wine tasting world.

Wine Tasting and Winery Visits in Cafayate

Although Cafayate is experiencing a bit of a tourism boom and appearing on more and more itineraries these days, there’s still a markedly laid back feel to it. When we approached the local tourism office, we found a woman half asleep at a table outside the office kiosk in main square. We inquired as to wine tasting opportunities; she laboriously lifted her index finger and pointed to a faded photocopy list of wineries and tasting schedules taped to a side window of the kiosk.

Sun-bleached and dated, the paper didn’t look very reassuring. So we coaxed a winery map from her and she was kind enough to note wineries nearby that offered daily tastings.

Here’s what we found.

1. Bodegas Etchart

One of the largest and oldest wineries in the area with production dating back to 1850. Although the facilities are imposing, the tour and tasting makes Bodegas Etchart worth a stop. Their standard tastings don’t feature any of their reserve wines, but you’ll have the opportunity to understand the Cafayate approach to winemaking and sample several wines made from an array of grape varietals.

Wine Tasting at Bodegas Etchart in Cafayate, Argentina
Bodegas Etchart in Cafayate, Argentina

If you arrive at the same time as a large group of locals (as we did), ask for a tour in English and you’ll likely be treated to a more intimate personal tour.

Cost: Free
Location: Route 40, KM 1047 (south of Cafayate). A couple of kilometers outside of town towards Quilmes. Rent a bike, walk or take a taxi.
Times: Monday-Friday: 9-12, 13-17, tours start at 13:15, 14:15, 15:15; Saturdays: 9-12
Highlights: Cafayate Reserve Torrontes 2009. Light and fruity aroma like a Gewurtzteminer, but a dry and bodied taste.
Malbec: OK, but not aged in Oak
Cafayate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: More body & tannen
(Note: Some of these lines change names and labels for export)

2. Bodega Nanni

A small, organic winery that runs its winemaking operations right in the middle of the town of Cafayate. Our friends in Salta had introduced us to Nanni wines and we were curious to taste more.

Checking the Color of the Wine - Cafayate, Argentina
Diving into wine tasting at Nanni Winery in Cafayate.

Cost: 5 pesos, but if you buy a bottle this can be used toward a purchase. Note: Nanni offers the option to take a tour, taste wines or both.
Location: Silverio Chavarria 171, Cafayate (a few blocks from the main plaza)
Times: 14:30 – 18:30
Highlights: The Rose was the best of the tasting. The Tannat is also good and unusual.

3. El Transito

The night before visiting El Transito, we purchased a bottle of their Pietro Marini Malbec from a local wine shop (yes, we were somewhat drawn by the old man on the label) and had really enjoyed it.

Pietro Marini Wine - Cafayate, Argentina
Pietro Marini Wine at El Transito Winery

So we decided to pay the winery a visit to see what else they offered.

We asked about the man on the label and were told that this was indeed Pietro Marini, the great-grandfather of the current owner of the winery. He had come to Argentina from Italy in the late 19th century and built a winery in Cafayate. He obviously remains an inspiration as his image is just about everywhere in the winery and on its labels.

While we enjoyed some of their wines, the tasting was so stingy as to almost be absurd. It would have been impossible to pour any less into our glasses. And, when we asked about tasting reserve wines — even offering to pay for a glass – our request was met with a stiff, resolute “not possible.”

Cost: Free
Location: Belgrano 102, Cafayate
Times: 9-13:00, 15-20:00
Tasting highlights: Our favorite here is the 2007 Pietro Marini Malbec. Smooth, nice fruit and a decent finish for a relatively inexpensive bottle. The 2007 Cabernet, while not quite on the level of the Malbec, exhibited even more fruit.

We bought the oaked (Roble) Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend at the tasting room out of curiosity and found it disappointing and flat in comparison to the unoaked Malbec. Another lesson in “Never judge a wine by its price.”

4. El Porvenir

We had tried a bottle of El Porvenir wine the week before with our friends in Salta and thought it was excellent. The 2005 Amauta Cabernet Merlot blend is one of the best wines for the money ($10) and one of the best we’d tasted during our time in Argentina.

While at the tasting room, we chose to skip the tasting – the price was high (more than $20 for the two of us) and the ambiance was non-existent. Instead, we bought a bottle of the 2006 Amauta Cabernet Merlot blend, which didn’t quite live up to the beauty of its 2005 predecessor.

A few weeks later we ran into a French couple working in the wine industry and they highly recommended a wine tasting at El Porvenir, indicating that only its highest quality and reserve wines are served. Based on the reliability of their other recommendations (in Mendoza), next time we’ll be sure to incorporate an El Porvenir tasting into our itinerary as a splurge.

Cost: 40 pesos
Location: Córdoba 32, Cafayate
Times: 10-13, 15-18:00
Tasting highlights: Amauta, Laborum.

Other Cafayate Wineries:

Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya: The original family behind Bodegas Etchart. We’re told the trick is to book in advance to enjoy a wine tasting lunch with the family.

Touring Wineries in Cafayate: The Upshot

Cafayate offers the opportunity to learn about and taste its wines without the logistical headache of coordinating a lot of transport. Get a map from the tourist office and plan your own little wine route. If you have a rental car, you can visit some wineries in the countryside. And if not, there are more than enough tasting opportunities in town.

Either way, retire with an order of empanadas in the evening and your favorite bottle from the day.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve never been to any of the big name bodegas in Cafayate. We generally stick to the smaller ones. Often you can’t even find the wine from those places when you go far afield from Salta.

    Nanni. Definitely a favorite in that in balances really good quality with good value.

    El Porvenir is by far my favorite wine. That’s the one we bring back for gifts, and you cannot find it in the US. That and Yacochuya, but since it’s more expensive, those gifts tend to be for special occasions.

    Glad you like our suggestions. And yes, lunch with the Etchart family on their vineyard is an experience, relaxing, beautiful and quirky.

  2. says

    Did you make it to the goat farm in Cafayate as well? They make goat cheese there and give tours of the property for a nominal fee that includes a log of very tasty goat cheese. We found that the goat cheese on some crusty bread paired nicely with the wines. Unfortunately the little bit we had remaining was taken at the border as we crossed into Chile because there was no proof of pasteurization on the package.

  3. says

    @Theresa Cabras de Cafayate. I love that place. The cheese is amazing. We unfortunately left ours in the refrigerator when we went to a tasting at Yacochuya and then forgot to pick it up before we left.

  4. says

    I love Cafayate, I love Torrontes (since going to Cafayate) and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Casa Empanada… Twelve (amazing) empanadas and a bottle of local Torrontes for 28 pesos. Just thinking about it makes me drool!

  5. says

    @Christy: I recently told my father about Torrontes as he was looking for a bottle of wine to bring to a friend’s house. He found a bottle of it at a grocery store (a well stocked Ingles) in Black Mountain, North Carolina. So, hopefully you can find a bottle or two where you live as well.

    @Leigh: I agree that the smaller wineries have a more personal touch, and often excellent wines. We were really thankful to you and Noah for introducing us to Nanni and El Porvenir wines. Both were excellent, but the El Porvenir wines are certainly special. Let us know if you do the wine tasting there.

    @Theresa: We stopped by Cabras de Cafayate on our way north for coffee and a selection of really delicious cakes and pies. Didn’t do the tour there, nor buy some of the cheese. Such a shame since I really do love goat cheese. Sorry to hear the Chilean border officials snatched your goat cheese away from you at the border – they must have some great feasts with all the confiscated food stuffs at the end of the day.

    @Allison: We were only in Cafayate for a couple of days, but we ate at Casa Empanada a few times in that short period! I had forgotten about the dozen empanadas and bottle of wine deal – can’t beat that for quality for money!

  6. says

    After 10 months in South America Cafayate is still one of our favourite spots. It’s beautiful, sunny, laid-back and of course has great empanadas and wine. We are not wine experts by any means but it’s fun to attend the tours and tastings and as the town is so compact they are eay to get to.

  7. says

    @Erin: I’m with you. Yay! for Cafayate. Great empanadas and wine, indeed. And the surrounding area is inspiring to say the least. The great thing about wine in Cafayate (and more generally in Argentina), is that you don’t need to be an expert. It’s the sort of place where, if you open yourself up and spend enough time, you can emerge with a solid wine tasting primer.

  8. says

    I am not a big wine drinker but being close to Napa Valley, I wouldn’t think of northwest Argentina as a big wine producing area. Seeing some of the photos reminds me of some areas in Napa Valley. However, it was very interesting to learn about Argentina wines and wineries.

  9. Susan G says

    Leigh, (or to anyone who did a tasting at Yacochuya) does anyone have any pointers or contact info for a tasting? Or incidentally any information on lunch/dinner pricing? I am a huge fan of their wines!

  10. says

    @Jeremy: We used to live in San Francisco and would try to get to Napa as often as we could. Lovely area. One of the great things about spending so much time in Argentina was realizing that there is so much more to Argentine wine than what we see in the States. Each region is quite unique and produces really, really excellent wines for reasonable price.

    @Michael: The whole region around Cafayate (and Salta) is fantastic – people, landscape, food, wine. Now that we’re in Thailand – definitely not wine country – I really miss the wine culture and great value wines of Argentina.

    Susan: If you click on the link above for Yacochuya, it will take you to the winery’s website. For arranging a lunch/tasting, the website suggests contacting Sra. Cecilia Zanoli at 03868-156-39-027 / 421-233. We called last year and the pricing was something like $50-$60/person, but it could have changed (or my memory is fading). Looking forward to tasting their wines one day!

  11. says

    I never thought of South America as a big wine country, but this has proved me wrong! I love wine, I’ll have to keep this in mind when planning our next trip abroad.

  12. says

    Ahh. It’s too bad you didn’t get to El Porvenir. Their Laborum Torrontes is what brought us back to white.
    We arrived about an hour before they opened, but since we were off to Cachi that morning they opened and made time for just Naomi and I. It was amazing to have the entire cellar to ourselves.
    Our favorite!!!
    mm-

  13. says

    @Gemma: Argentina and Chile are the two big powerhouses in South American wines. The quality and diversity of wines has definitely improved over the last years.

    @Mark: Sounds like a lovely experience at El Porvenir winery. We didn’t try their Torrontes, but we did have a chance to try several of their reds and they were also fantastic.

  14. Ross Webster says

    Hi Audrey, I am in Cafayate and am heading off on wine tasting tomorrow. I am an Australian a long way from home and very familiar with Oz wines, and looking forward to trying these Cafayata wines particularly the Torrontes. My next stop is Mendoza. Thank you for your information.

  15. says

    Thanks very much for your nice and great information Cafayate. Definetely you are helping Cafayate to receive more travellers!
    We are a new company based in Cafayate offering original wine experiences in Cafayate , also we offer local activities with local people in Cafayate!

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