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Avalon Tours first started visiting Argentina back in 1996, before most wine enthusiasts were aware of what was happening there. We've seen Mendoza's wineries transform from the old rustic style to today's state-of-the-art facilities that produce world class wines, and we're watching Salta develop its amazing potential in the highest vineyards in the world.
So, what's the big deal with Malbec from Mendoza? Is it really that great? Better than France's version from Cahors? Is it an old grape with a new look or maybe just a well-marketed nouveau wine?
Well, to begin with Malbec has been grown in Argentina since 1852, so it's hardly a "nouveau" wine. Is it better than Malbec from Cahors? It surely can be - perhaps "different" is a better description, since the Argentine Malbec is quite possibly a different clone altogether. And these days yes it is indeed being marketed very aggressively and intelligently. It's also a very different wine than it was just a few years ago, as the most important of Argentina's wine regions has hauled itself up over the musty old botti of its past and immersed itself in wineries full of gleaming stainless and fresh new French oak. Cutting back yields, using irrigation to control quality instead of maximizing production, sanitizing and rebuilding their wineries, the Mendocinos have truly created their own little revolution.
The region of Mendoza is nestled right under the steep slopes of the Andes, spreading onto the eastern plains where it quickly becomes a desert that stretches out to the hazy, dusty horizon and beyond. Here though, in the high valleys at the foot of South America's tallest mountain range we find clean, fresh water running in gushing torrents from the snow melt, cascading down rapids and roaring right through the town of Mendoza and its vineyards.
Not only have the wineries been upgraded, Mendoza now offers a great range of character hotels, with modern facilities and in beautiful locations. The food is wonderful, and many wineries have restaurants which serve excellent local cuisine. One of our friends is now famous as chef-operator of restaurants in several wineries, and a highlight of many of our tours is a cooking lesson with him!
Salta, up in the Andes at the north-western corner of Argentina, is one of the most spectacular places you can imagine. By the time you get here you'll have earned the thrill you're about to enjoy - a couple of hours by plane from Buenos Aires followed by a solid three hour drive through scenery that equals the Grand Canyon as you dodge herds of llama and goats along winding mountain roads. That'll get you to Cafayate at least - the lowest of the region's vineyards at about 4,500 ft elevation. To see the highest vines (in the world!) will take another two hours on the road, where at 8,000 feet you'll be relieved to arrive at the Hess Collection's delightful micro-hotel at Viña Colomé.
Your adventure is nothing though, compared to the Inca traders who trudged through the craggy valleys of red, yellow, brown and gray and across flood plains of mountain rivers over 500 years ago on their 3,000 mile journey from Peru to Patagonia. For one thing you won't be laying your head down in tents or stone huts every night as they had to! Sheraton has created Salta's first 5-star hotel and vinotherapy spa, Los Patios de Cafayate on the El Esteco estate, and surrounded by the vines of Domingo Hermanos is the lovely Vinas de Cafayate hotel, where we had one of the best meals of a recent trip. You can see remains of the Incan exploits in the ruins of Cachi and Chicoana, on the road from Colomé back to the city of Salta, evidence of civilizations as venerable and sophisticated as any we had in Europe.
But you're here for the wine... from such a unique place you'd expect something special, and you won't be disappointed! Between the altitude and the latitude of this region - a sub-tropical mountain climate with less than 4 inches of annual rainfall, intense sunlight and a temperate range of almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit between night and day - this is a truly remarkable environment for grape growing.
Torrontes from Salta is known for its complex aromatics, vivacious acidity and freshness, making it an amazingly versatile white wine that competes easily with Sauvignon Blancs, Chablis-style Chardonnay, Riesling or Viognier. The famous Malbec grape, which Argentina has claimed as its flagship varietal , can be even more intense here than in the more famous Mendoza region (where 80% of Argentina's wine comes from). Cabernet, Syah and other varietals are also being planted with great success.
Much of the credit here goes to that diurnal temperature variation and the clean mountain air that allows the plants such great photosynthesis - and the lean mountain soils, clear snow-melt water, low humidity, lack of pests and disease… maybe there's a reason that famed oenologist Michel Rolland fell instantly in love when he first visited here in 1988! Since then Rolland has worked with Arnaldo Etchard at his San Pedro de Yacochuya winery, producing stunning wines that turn heads around the world, and several other foreigners have now followed in his footsteps.
So why haven't we heard more about this region? First off, as you can see, it's not that easy to visit. More important though, the past 15 years has seen some dramatic changes in winemaking methods and investment in this area, as in the rest of Argentina. Despite the plentiful "old vines" that have given 40 or more harvests, a lot of the most famous wines today come from relatively young plots, and are made with very modern farming and vinification methods that produce far more user-friendly wine than the often tannic, extracted or sometimes even oxidized style of years past. Both Argentinean and foreign investment has been pouring into the wine business since the Peso was devalued in 2001/2002, and the ensuing wineries in the Salta region embody state of the art technology with very attractive traditional design.
None of this investment is any use without a human commitment though - but there's no lack of that up in these hills either. Young, dynamic, passionate winemakers who are completely in touch with the rest of the world despite their remote location, are driving their ambitions towards really first-class wines - but at the same time still producing quantities of affordable, excellent quality cuvées that are some of the best values in the world. This is a definite "must see" for anyone who has a taste for adventure and great wine, culture, history and spectacular scenery!