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

Decanter - - CONTENT - Pa­tri­cio Tapia is au­thor of the an­nual Descor­cha­dos guide to the wines of South Amer­ica, and a reg­u­lar De­can­ter con­trib­u­tor

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’

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