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