Torrontés Wine: 24 Hours at its Source in Cafayate, Argentina.
Cafayate, Argentina, is the home of Torrontés wine. From Salta, a vibrant city of 500,000, one drives through Quebrada de Las Conchas, a protected area much more grand and vast than the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Quebrada twists through mountains of red and green rock. Trees appear at the lowest elevations, as if flowing through the various broad valleys along with the meandering river, untamed by dams. Geologic history altered the courses of streams in the Quebrada. Where, millennia ago, a waterfall much taller than 100 feet tall carved away red rock, today, the long-dry natural amphitheater now provides a venue for folk musicians and stop for wine tourists. Wine is not new to Cafayate, which is a quaint, tidy, Spanish colonial town of about 11,000 people, set among hills, scrubby trees, and Cardones, a Saguaro-like cactus. The traditional plaza continues to serve locals as the community gathering spot and is the focal point for shopkeepers and restaurateurs welcoming wine tourists. Some Cafayate bodegas (wineries) began in the 19th century. Now, international corporate giants are buying up lands and bodegas, trying to corner the market on this appellation.
Our first wine stop, “La Bodeguita,” was anything but corporate. The storefront looks like thousands of storefronts and homes in any small town in Mexico or Argentina. The barrel-top sign says (in Spanish) “La Bodeguita artisanal wines since 1928.” The wizened winemaker greeted us with a warm, broad smile that parted the deep character lines on his face. Then, he hoisted himself out of the chair with his cane, and ushered us into the small place, where his grandson plus three visitors were about all who could fit comfortably in the dusty old store with short ceilings and gray-black wood. No tasting fees here. Grandson fished out the bottle of Torrontés from the cooler and poured carefully, with two hands on the bottle and eyes focused intently on the small (non-wine) glass. Common to all Torrontés we’ve sampled before and since, it produced a floral, fruity aroma that, with most white wines, would indicate a too-sweetness more common to Chenin Blanc. In fact, Torrontés makes its reputation with its dryness. This winemaker’s version was quite good. Like all Torrontés, it was hearty and flavorful. The main difference among Cafayate Torrontés is where it lies on the sweet-dry-oak continuum (which, I guess, one could say about most wine.) This winemaker got it to my liking, somewhere on the dry half of the continuum for about $5.50 per bottle. Next, he proudly offered us a delicious Mistela, an auburn-colored fortified wine. Finally, he sent me on my way with a shot of clear aguardiente, which is the 80-something proof distillate of the grape residue. (Now, I know why this man has a smile on his face.)
Just before closing time, we reached El Esteco, whose grand white facade, impressive driveway past vine rows, and ample parking looks plucked from the Napa Valley. The professional tasting room offered four names and four grades of wines. We selected the Don David and Ciclos. The server explained that they differed in the quality of grapes, number of months in oak (9 vs. 15) and types of oak. Also, while Don David was 100% Torrontes, Ciclos included 15% Sauvignon Blanc. I preferred the less expensive, less oaked Don David. I like the cleaner, more pure flavor. My wife disagreed, preferring the Ciclos. In the United States and elsewhere, El Esteco sells its wine under the name Michel Torino, the winery it purchased. Torino is an old Argentina name, whose ancestors obtained land grants from the King of Spain.