Travels in Argentina

16 March 2018

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WHAT is the longest route des vins in the world? The answer must be the Ruta 40, in Argentina, which, in a distance of more than 1000 kilometres, includes such important wine regions as Mendoza, San Juan, the Famatina Valley, and the Valles Calchaquíes, around Cafayate. Just off its northern end lies what is said to be the highest vineyard in the world — some 2300 metres above sea level — Colomé.

I was taking some R & R recently in Cafayate, one of the more laid-back wine towns in the world, where I saw a road sign, “Colomé: 2hrs”; so some colleagues and I decided to take a day’s trip there. I am not sure what vehicle, Mr Hess, the Swiss owner of Colomé, has, but it must be faster than the one we had. The first 20-odd kilometres, to the village of San Carlos, were fine; it then changed to graded gravel, going through wonderful canyons of unearthly rock formations of differently coloured sandstone.

The road regularly crossed dried-up riverbeds, and our speed dropped. After about an hour, we stopped to admire the view, only to notice that we had a puncture. We were able to obtain lunch and have our tyre repaired, but, some 60 kilometres short of our target, we decided that that was far enough, and we turned back.

If we had reached our goal, we might well have tasted two wines from Colomé that are now available in Britain: Waitrose stock their Malbec 2016, which also has a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat in the blend, for £17.49; and Marks and Spencer have the Altitude Blend 2014 of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Tannat for £12.50. These are well worth seeking out.

Cafayate is a mere 1700 metres above sea-level, but it has an ideal climate for wine production, with hot days and cool nights. Like every other wine region in Argentina, it produces Malbec, but it is particularly known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, and Torrontés, the distinctive, aromatic white wine of the country.

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One of the better wineries in the town is El Esteco, which also incorporates a luxury hotel, Patios de Cafayate. Their signature Torrontés is the Don David 2016, which is available from Great Western Wines (£11.50). Waitrose has an Altaland Torrontés 2017 for £10.99, and Marks and Spencer stocks an Amalaya Torrontés-Riesling blend from the 2016 vintage for £10.

One red wine I was fortunate enough to taste was the Chañar Punco 2012 from the El Esteco winery. The wine is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. My notes say that it had a soft start before opening out into a voluptuous mouthful of a wine. This is available from Great Western Wines for £45 a bottle. They also offer, at a more approachable price, the El Esteco Estate Malbec 2014, for £14.95.

For a relaxing wine weekend, I can recommend Cafayate: it has a host of wineries of varying sizes and qualities to visit. Sadly, it is not the easiest place to reach, as the nearest airport, Salta, is a three-hours’ drive away, and Salta is almost two hours by plane from Buenos Aires. If you cannot make it, I suggest you seek out any Argentine wines with Valles Calchaquíes as their source on the label.

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