“Wine is like blood,”
a young Argentinean man told us while slapping his arm in Humahuaca in Northern Argentina. It was our first time drinking wine in Argentina, and really one of the first times drinking the stuff in all of South America. One ltr boxes of Argentinean goodness , which we came to call “Adult juice boxes”, can be found in every little store in every little town in this country for just over a dollar. We had grabbed a chilled box of white wine out of the little store in Humahuaca and the man told us that the red was better. Well he knew his boxes of wine and we had many boxes of red in the future. Wine has a very special place, I think, in the hearts of Argentineans, epecially in Northern Argentina where the provinces of Salta and Mendoza are world reknown for their grape and wine.
At home, we have a curious little advent calendar mostly for children and those young at heart that count down each day to Christmas with a piece of chocolate. Since we’re in Cafayate, which is known for its wineries producing amazing and unique wines since they are some of the highest altitude wineries in the world. Cafayate is surrounded by gorgeous desert valleys and gorges (see entry on the ride into Cafayate through the stunning Quebrada de las Conches).
The stunning high (well we think it’s kinda low coming down from the Altiplano but at almost 1700m, it’s still considered pretty high altitude to most) deserts with brilliant red rocks and clear blue skies 364 days out of the year doesn’t seem to be a hot spot for wine at first but the quaint chill town of Cafayate is surrounded by leafy green vineyards and there are 24 wineries just around town, some handed down in families for over a hundred years. For this Christmas, we will have a wine filled advent calendar counting down with a winery visit each day!
December 20 – El Transitio
Twas the fifth day before Christmas, and all through the town,
Glasses were clinking and wine was guzzled down….
For our first wine tour, we went to the winery “El Transito”. It is considered a newer winery but actually has a fairly old history that is remembered through the branding of their wines. There are the Pietro Marini wines, giving tribute to the great-grandfather of the current owner who came from Italy at the end of the 19th century who started the winery in Cafayate. Another one of their wines, the Pedro Moises Reserva gives tribute to Pietro’s son who took over the traditional winery in 1942. The winery was moved to a new facilities in 1952 and the old winery is now the Wine Museum.
Set in the center of town, El Transito gives free tours and tastings. It is not large and the tour is quite quick, showing us first to the tall stainless steel containers for maturing the wine and the hole in the wall vats where the wine is fermented. Downstairs is the classic cellar where wine is aged in American and French oak barrels and there are stacks of wine bottles.
Our tasting featured three wines – a white Torrontes, the grape that Cafayate is known for, and two reds. We sampled a Cabernet Sauvingnon and the Pedro Moises Reserva, which is a mix of red grapes and aged in an oak barrel for 11 months. All of their wines are quite dry.
December 21 – Nanni
Twas the fourth day before Christmas …
Nanni turned out to be my favorite bodega to visit and in my opinion, had some of the best wines. They are strong about family tradition. It is one of the oldest wineries in Cafayate dating back to 1897 and prides in itself for remaining in the hands of the same family all that time. They are also a unique boutique winery for being organic. They use natural methods for controling pests in their vineyards, which is really helped by the dry climate here as they don’t have to worry about moulds as much, and use a beaten egg white instead of sulphites in their wine!
Tours of the winery are free but the tastings are 30 pesos and happen every half and hour of so throughout the day. The great thing about Nanni is you can get the tour in English. While we can have basic conversations in Spanish, we got so much more out of a tour in English and learned so much about wine not just at Nanni but in the whole area. For example, we learned that these are the highest atltitude vineyards in the world.
The dry climate, around 20 degree flucuations in temperature between night and day, 364 days of sunshine and high exposure to UV at higher atlitude are all characteristics of this area. This means there is less yield of grapes and smaller grapes with thicker skin – more intense flavours. Torrontes is especiality of this area. It is usually recognized as a grape from Spain but our guide told us that it naturally mixed with a local variety so it is uniquely Argentinean and especially from Cafayate.
The tastings featured four wines. We first tried a Torrontes white wine, which was amazing and I thought it was much better than the one yesterday at El Transito. Our lovely guide guided us through the fruity floral flavors (white flowers, pineapple and a bit of banana even!) of the unique torrentes, which is both fruity in aroma but is a dry wine. Next, we tried a rose wine, which is a red grape made in the process of white wines rather an a mix of red and white wines. For white wine, grapes are pressed and only juice is kept for fermentation while its the opposite is for red wine. In red wine, the peel and seeds are included in the fermentation process and then the mixture is pressed afterwards and everyting other than the liquid is removed. For Nanni’s rose wine, the peel and seed of the red grapes are left only for two days in the juice to colour it. We really liked because it tasted very fruity like strawberries and cherries We sampled a Tannet, which was very intense. Tannet is normally never made as a wine on its own since it has a high level of tannins (highest of all grapes used for wine actually) but Nanni has perfected the process. There was also one desert white wine – a Torrontes picked at the tail end of the season when it has soaked up as much sun as possible and turned it into sugar. Nice desert wine but can’t drink too much of that at once. Great tour and highly recommended!
December 22 – Domingo Hermanos
Twas the third day before Christmas….
Established in 1978, Domingo Hermanos is a fairly young winery in Cafayate but has grown to be one of its biggest producers. In many ways, it seemed to be the opposite of the small boutique, organic Nanni winery that we visited yesterday. Walking through outside yard, I felt like I was in some industrial plant with tall white silos and forklifts buzzing around carrying pallets stacked high with bottles.
Domingo Hermanos is well known for their 5 ltr jugs of wine, which we have really come to know during our time here in Cafayate. They have a vineyard just across the street but also more vineyards in different areas and also buys grapes from different growers in the area. In total, they source 150 hectares of grapes and has the capacity to produce 6 million litres of wine.
Trucks come in with the grapes and dump it into a huge metal industrial press that is the size of a trailer. The first press goes to the production of normal 750ml bottles of wine and the subsequent pressings goes to the production of the 5 ltr jugs. 60% of their wine produced is the 5 ltr jugs, which is popular in restaurants and households as a table wine for everyday dinners. Of the grape juice destined for bottles, some is aged for their reserve collection depending on the quality of the grape. Our guide tells us that it’s not the process that makes a wine good but rather the grape. If the batch of grapes are good, then the slate it for their reserve collection. He tells us that no process can make good wine out of bad grapes.
The tour and tastings cost 10 pesos, which can be used towards a purchase of a bottle of wine afterwards. The tasting featured three wines – a Torrontes, a very acidic Cabernet Sauvingnon and then a white desert wine that was very sweet. Overall, I was not very impressed with the wines presented in the tasting and felt that their big jugs of wine that we have during dinner were actually better! However, the nice thing is that they serve the wines with some goat cheese that they also produce. The grape seeds and skins goes towards fertilizer for the vineyards but also to feed their goats!
December 23 – Bodega La Banda
Twas the second day before Christmas…
Also known as Vasija Secreta, this bodega is located at the northern entrance to Cafayate on RN 40. It is a really old winery and its half functioning (which is actually a gracious conclusion since only a few of its pages open in the sometimes the website actually opens…) website says that it is the oldest winery in Cafayate. It dates back to 1857 but other than that, the history of this bodega remains quite a mystery.
You enter the winery through a majestic tunnel of grapes hanging down, looking out to green vineyards and the mountains in the background. There is a small museum featuring some really big old barrels. In the tastings room, there is an area where you can buy wine and a small bar where you can do tastings.
The tastings are free and there is no guided visit. You are quickly give three wines and that’s that. We tried a Torrontes, a Cabernet (simply Cabernet not Cabernet Sauvingnon) and a Tannet. The tour is definately lacking but the wines are actually quite good in our opinion. We liked the Tannet at La Banda more than the one at Nanni actually and thought it was more smooth.
December 24 – Christmas Eve
Twas the night before Christmas, where all through the town,
Everything was stiring, Christmas celebrations was going down…
In Latin America, it seems like the big day is not Christmas day but rather Christmas eve. Baby Christ is put into navity scenes, both big municipal displays and ones in cathedrals to the small ones people have in their own homes, on Christmas eve night to reanact the sacred story year after year. After Baby Christ is brought out, then the feast and fiesta begins. At midnight, fireworks boom into the sky. People eat and drink through the night and the next day, Christmas day, the whole village is a ghost town as people sleep in and recover from their previous night’s festivites. During the day of Christmas Eve, the grocery stores are busy but many other things are closed, including the bodega (winery) we wanted to visit. However, that night, we made it up with many wines shared with good cheers with our many new friends at the hostel.