Expert’s choice: Calchaquí Valley reds
Follow the development of one of the wine world’s most extreme territories, as Patricio Tapia picks his favourite bottles from Argentina’s rugged far north
Patricio Tapia’s selection from this extreme, high, sun-drenched terrain in Argentina’s north
IT looKS lIKE the moon. A rocky surface, intersected by mountains of sharp peaks and lands of all shades of grey. There is almost no life here, beyond whatever manages to grow next to the rivers that wend their way down the mountains. Although a desert region, like Mendoza, the Calchaquí Valleys in Argentina’s far northwest are a world of their own, a land with 300 days of sun, higher than 2,000m, with condors soaring up above – huge birds with a three-metre wingspan, the colossi of the Andes, observing from great height some of the most extreme vineyards in the world.
Under these conditions, the wines produced in this area – comprising the provinces of Salta, Catamarca and Tucumán, some 1,200km north of Mendoza – are intense in their flavours and also often extremely high in alcohol. Since 1988, when consultant Michel Rolland arrived in Salta, the prevailing style has been one of opulent wines, rich in maturity. Nothing strange about that, in an area where it rains very rarely and where the sun’s radiation is intense and all-enveloping. The harvest can be quietly anticipated until the grapes reach a generous maturity – there is nothing to stop them from accumulating sugar.
Little by little, however, other voices have appeared, calling for wines of a less unctuous and fresher character. And although they still number very few, it is a trend that’s slowly increasing. Vital in this change have been moves to bring the harvests forward, protect grape clusters from the sun, water the vineyards in the summer and to use little or no wood at all in vinification.
In terms of grapes, there are around 3,300ha planted with vineyards. Of these, the largest part is Malbec (1,300ha) followed by Torrontés (970ha), a white grape that here produces floral wines of super-intense aromas and creamy textures. Cabernet Sauvignon follows, with about 500ha, while other grapes such as Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Tannat are rare.
For its part, while the star-turn Malbec always offers sweet, soft tannins, in the Calchaquí Valleys this is enhanced, showing a creaminess that’s not only tempting, but also very commercial. The Cabernet Sauvignon, meanwhile, tends to have a marked herbal accent, along with powerful and firm tannins, sometimes close to rusticity. So many producers want to provide harder bones for their Malbec, choosing to add some Cabernet. The few examples of tannic grapes such as Tannat or Petit Verdot seem to behave very well in the high extremes of the north, offering freshness allied to a structure firm enough to sustain this fruit maturity.
More generous and intense than the Argentinian reds to which we are accustomed, the wines of the north offer a warm and generous style, ideal to enjoy during the winter days that are coming before long.
‘Other voices have appeared, calling for wines of a less unctuous and fresher character’