Alternative Argentina Wine Regions
Mendoza may be the heart of Argentina's wine industry, but if it's extreme terroir you want, head to Salta and Patagonia.
Argentine wine is ruled by the letter M.
There’s Malbec, the country’s most popular and best varietal wine.
There’s also Mendoza, the region in which roughly 80 percent of Argentine wine is made.
But there’s more to this country than just the M&Ms. If you’re a fan of wine from the land of tango and gauchos—or even if you’re not—search out the undiscovered treasures from Salta and Patagonia. Producers from these emerging regions are making Argentina’s best off-the-grid wines.
Hot and High Salta
A vintner once told me that smooth roads lead to basic vineyards, while the worst roads lead to the best grapes on earth. Salta must have exceptional vineyards then, because its vines are difficult as hell to visit.
The province of Salta is located in the north of the country, where Spanish missionaries planted some of Argentina’s first vines in the 16th century. Salta is the country’s most radical wine region. Most of its vineyards sit more than a mile above sea level, amid jagged red-rock formations.
Vineyards in the province of Salta, many well over 100 years old, are concentrated in the Calchaquí Valley in the Andes foothills and around the colonial city of Cafayate. Elevations range from about 5,700 feet above sea level in Cafayate, up to Bodega Colomé’s experimental Calchaquí vineyards at more than 10,000 feet.
In Cafayate and the Calchaquí Valley, Salta’s two main subzones for wine production, the daytime heat can be searing. Finding ripeness in the region’s Malbec, Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as the aromatic white variety Torrontés is rarely a problem. But at 6,000 feet and higher, the nights are cool, so the grapes retain ample acidity.
The Calchaquí Valley is a four-hour drive from Salta, much of it along barely maintained, goat-infested gravel roads prone to flooding and flat tires.
Cafayate is more accessible than Calchaquí, but is still several hours south of Salta along winding mountain roads, long stretches of which are unpaved.
Among red grapes, Salta specializes in warm-weather varieties, particularly Malbec and Tannat, but also Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These reds are often overwhelmingly full-bodied, rugged in feel and roasted in aroma and flavor, with alcohol levels approaching or exceeding 15%.
Fortunately, that’s changing vintage by vintage, as agronomists and winemakers seek to tame Salta’s inherent fury by picking earlier and managing sun exposure.
And while Salta’s terroir will always yield muscular wines marked by the sun, Cafayate and Calchaquí offerings are no longer synonymous with something leathery, stewy or harsh.
“Salta is a land of extremes—extreme beauty, extreme altitude, extreme sunlight,” says Jeff Mausbach, a partner in a new wine from Cafayate called Anko. “These extremes make for a singular expression of Malbec—powerful, structured wines with a savory minerality that is very different from other regions in Argentina.”
On the white side, Torrontés is front and center in Cafayate. Most Torrontés vineyards in the region feature traditional overhead parral trellises that shade the variety’s oversized, fragile bunches from the punishing sun.
Salta’s combination of warm days, cool nights and tropical humidity that drifts south from the Amazon permits Torrontés to maintain acidity and emphasizes its floral aromatics.
92 Michel Torino 2011 Don David Finca La Maravilla #6 Malbec (Cafayate). Jammy-smelling and stacked with black-fruit aromas. The mouth is bulky and bullish, with oak-draped blackberry flavors that end in a tornado of coffee, mocha and mint. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
abv: 13.9% Price: $25
91 Anko 2012 Oasis en Altura Flor de Cardon Malbec (Salta). Pencil eraser, herbal scents and leafy notes accent brawny, black-fruit aromas. The mouthfeel is scratchy on the surface and chewy at its base, yet the flavors of clove, spice, herbs and baked black fruits are harmonious. Vino del Sol.
abv: 14% Price: $29
90 Yacochuya 2011 Apreciado Malbec (Cafayate). Cured meat, stewed fruits, medicinal notes and floral suggestions rule the nose. This is concentrated but not syrupy, with roasted plum and berry flavors along with savory spice, pepper and brown sugar. A toasty finish has some heat to it. The Artisan Collection.
abv: 14% Price: $22
Other recommended producers: Bodega Colomé, Domingo Molina, Quara, Tacuil
About 1,250 miles to the south of Salta are the wine regions of Patagonia. Look not to icy southern Patagonia—complete with glaciers and penguin colonies—but northern Patagonia, specifically the wind-swept flatlands of Neuquén and the Río Negro Valley.
If Salta is rugged, often hot and perched near the sky, Patagonia is the opposite. It’s mostly flat and is Argentina’s coolest wine region.
For centuries, these areas were best known for growing grain, apples and pears, simple crops that could withstand staunch breezes, chilly weather and modest elevations.
But over the past 20 years, both subzones have matured with improved irrigation. Each is now home to wineries specializing in Malbec and, in one case, Pinot Noir.
Red wines from Patagonia, which span the spectrum of international varieties but highlight Malbec, tend to be crisp in feel and focused on red-fruit aromas and flavors. They offer less flamboyance and heft than those from Salta or Mendoza.
Patagonia has over a century’s worth of winemaking history, but only in recent decades have several wineries in Neuquén and Río Negro emerged as quality-driven operations.
Among the leaders has been Bodega Noemía de Patagonia, owned by Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano of Italy and the Danish winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers. Their first vintage in the Río Negro Valley came in 1999.
Several years later, the countess was joined in the region by her cousin, Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia in Tuscany, who started Bodega Chacra. It has emerged as the premier Pinot Noir producer in Argentina, sourcing its fruit primarily from vineyards planted in 1932 and 1955.
More recently, new Río Negro wineries like Verum have joined the vanguard, and there are other fledgling projects in the works. Bodega Aniello has vineyards that were planted in the 1930s and ’40s, as well as younger vines.
“The first benefit of Río Negro is no humidity, which allows us to grow vines without using any type of spray or treatment,” says Vinding-Diers, also the winemaker for Bodega Chacra. “It’s one of the only places in the world that allows for that.”
“But,” he says, “the secret here is the quality of the water. It’s extremely clean, mountain-fresh water,” something he insists is reflected in the purity of the wines.
In nearby Neuquén, it was also around the turn of the millennium that a modern wine industry began to take root, and only after vital water was diverted from a nearby river, thus allowing for irrigation of vineyards.
A number of good wineries have sprouted up, like Bodega NQN, Familia Schroeder and Fin del Mundo. Neuquén is now home to about a half-dozen bodegas specializing in international varieties, although the best wines have been Malbec and Malbec-based blends.
93 Bodega Noemía de Patagonia 2010 Malbec (Río Negro Valley). Wild berry, graphite, cola and toasty aromas lead to a big, yet smooth palate with supercharged black-fruit, herb, toast and mocha flavors. This is spicy, dry, fully oaked and in great overall shape. Vias Imports. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $130
92 Chaltén 2009 Gran Reserva Malbec (Neuquén). This is a steal for under $20. The bouquet is dark and loaded with berries and graphite. The palate is deep and layered, with blackberry, chocolate and coffee flavors. A long, spicy, toasty finish is warm, but not hot. Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.
abv: 14.5% Price: $19
92 Bodega Chacra 2011 Cincuenta y Cinco Pinot Noir (Río Negro Valley). A fine blend of cherry, leather and tea aromas leads to a round, yet crisp body with toasty, smoky oak framing red-fruit flavors. A fresh, precise finish holds onto the wine’s generous but refined barrel component. Grand Cru Selections.
abv: 13% Price: $60
Other recommended producers: Bodega NQN, Familia Schroeder, Fin del Mundo, Verum