A glance at the Calchaquí Valleys
Where they are and why is that everybody is talking about their wines. Facts, trends, and testimonials from their main actors.
The province of Salta, placed at the North of Argentina, has grown exponentially in the last ten years, becoming the fourth region in terms of vineyard’s surface and, undoubtedly, a point of reference for the diversity of Argentinian wine.
The Calchaquí Valleys, the best known geographical area, drove this growth. A set of deep valleys with more than 200 km long (124 miles), at high altitude, which forms mountainous chains.
However, they are not exclusive from Salta, whose subzones are Cachi, Molinos, San Carlos, and Cafayate; they are formed by Northwest of Tucumán and the North of Catamarca too.
According to the National Institute of Viticulture (INV) in its report “Analysis of the evolution of vine area by provinces years 2000-2008-2017“, in the year 2017, an area of 4,182 hectares were distributed in 466 vineyards among the Calchaquí Valleys.
With these numbers, they represent 30,4% with respect to the total hectares of the northwest region (NOA) and 16,5% of the vineyards.
The report explains that as of the year 2000, sustained growth in the surface began, which went from 2,303 hectares to those 4,182 hectares in the year 2017, which shows an increase of 82 percent.
This increase implied the transformation of the surface planting high-quality varieties prevailing Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties. Both varieties represent 55% of the total surface of the Valley.
The climate in the area of the Calchaquí Valleys is temperate and with remarkable thermal amplitudes. Summers last longer and, occasionally, there is room for late spring frosts. The frost-free period is broad, ranging from October to April. It is also frequent during summer storms the fall of localized hail.
The soils are generally sandy or sandy loams with a high proportion of fine sand. The profile of the soil is deep, with a somewhat rocky subsoil that ensures excellent permeability and salt leaching.
Rafael Domingo, owner of Domingo Molina says:
“On the slopes of the mountain, west of Cafayate, we have soils where large stones predominate next to gravel. Very little organic matter, poor soils where there is no great retention of water and therefore the roots of the vines tend to go deep“.
On the other hand, Claudio Maza, Chief Winemaker of El Esteco, tells that they are making the first preparation with grapes from the El Socorro vineyard since it has a highly thought-out development to have different styles of wines in a place with a soil where calcareous stone predominates.
Irrigation water comes mainly from the Calchaquí and Santa María rivers and various water arms from these collectors.
Again Rafael Domingo explains that “an important characteristic is to have a lot of solar insolation in the morning and little in the afternoon sun, which avoids the stronger sunlight in the bunches and allows us, always with an adequate management of the canopy, regular clouds and the Andes, to avoid aromas and tastes of cooked fruit and accentuate fresh profiles”.
Of course, when talking about the Calchaquíes Valleys, we can not ignore the height, which for Agustín Lanús, founding partner and winemaker of Agustín Lanús Wines, plays a key role in the personality of the wine.
In his report “The history of the secret terroirs of Argentina“, Agustín deepens on the technical, economic and work personnel difficulties that the producers of vineyards of extreme heights have to face.
“The height makes more concentrated grapes, intensifies colors and introduces flavors that are not usually so pronounced in traditional Malbec“, he says.
The report also refers to the characteristics of the terroirs of height and indicates that they are usually dry, with poor and rocky soils which makes the vines get stronger.
The most cultivated variety and the one that more increase of surface registers from the year 2008 is the Malbec that concentrates the 39% of the total cultivated in the province.
Malbec went from 454 hectares in 2008 to 1,308 hectares in 2017, increasing 853 hectares in the last 10 years. The cabernet sauvignon (+46 hectares) and Tannat (+35 hectares) are next in importance due to their surface growth.
The Torrontés ‘Riojano’ variety, which in 2008 used to occupy the first place in cultivated area, has gone to second place in 2017, with 29%. However, it is still the icon of the area and is characterized by being friendly and easy to drink.
Both varieties concentrate 68 percent of Salta’s vine surface.
Despite what the official numbers usually say when someone mentions the province of Salta and, specifically Cafayate, one of the first varieties that comes to mind is Tannat. The income of this variety in Argentina occurred in the province of Entre Ríos (East of Argentina) with the arrival of the Basque Juan Jauregui alias “Lorda”.
Lorda provided stakes to an Uruguayan friend, Pascual Harriague, who propagated the variety in the Salto area (West of Uruguay) and from there he spreads it throughout the whole country.
Already in 1928, the first winemaker from Salta, Miguel Hurtado, who was in charge of Salta’s experimental wine station, said the following thing about Tannat, a variety that at the time was called Lorda:
“It is recommended for body and red wines. Vinifying Lorda in a proportion more than half with any of the other varieties produce table wines that have nothing to envy the best in the country in its class”.
Undoubtedly one of the aromatic characteristics of Salta wines has to do with the presence of pyrazines, but what are they?
The pyrazines are a group of chemical compounds responsible for generating the aroma of red and green pepper in some wines (Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and other genetically related varieties).
The concentration of pyrazines decreases as the grapes mature, so sometimes high levels of this molecule in wine are associated with a lack of grape ripening.
Beyond this, the impression is that the aroma of pepper in Salta wines should be considered a typical descriptor and not an indicator of lack of maturity as in other wine regions.
A few years ago the wines from this area of Argentina were rustic, harder and more concentrated.
Nowadays the trend seems to give a turn thanks to greater technology, new techniques of agronomy and especially, winemakers, that think differently how to understand the terroirs.
The sum of all this makes wines with more elegance and freshness, but without losing the character that identifies its origin, which led to greater consumer acceptance.
Last year, the English wine critic, Tim Atkin, published his 2018 report on Argentine wine, which includes eight labels from Salta and the Calchaquí Valleys.
“Calchaquí Valleys are at a very good moment in terms of the quality of their wines, this does not mean that in the past it was not like that, but I think there are more wineries playing this game, the style was toned in more kind, fresh and elegant wines but without losing the zone’s DNA”, says Claudio Maza.
The permanent search for higher quality, diversity and the exploration of extreme terroirs gives Cafayate, the Calchaquíes Valleys and all of Salta, a potential and a diversity that take Argentine wine to the next level.
The growth is explained from the restlessness to challenge the limits that each of the producers of the area has and that today they take well high the quality of the wines of the Calchaquí Valleys.
Undoubtedly, one of the events that demonstrates how they work together to achieve that goal is the CoProVi, an event that takes place every year and to which I was lucky enough to attend. Formally, it is the NOA Vitivinicultural Council.
I say formally because the reality is that one can see that it is a group of colleagues who, united by the passion of wanting to communicate the imprint of the wines of our North, came together to materialize it.
All wines are selected by a committee of the organization that is responsible for choosing the best, at their discretion, that they find in each cellar of the Calchaquí Valleys’ wineries.
Once selected, the samples make a cut looking to achieve the maximum expression of the Valley in that wine. It is never mentioned to which wineries they belong. Undoubtedly an experience worth living.
Oh, and for the record, you can not understand the whole seal of Calchaquí Valleys’ wines without tasting them paired with their gastronomy!
- Sources: “Analysis of the evolution of grapevine surface by provinces years 2000-2008-2017”: http://www.inv.gov.ar/inv_contenidos/pdf/estadisticas/tespeciales/2017/Evoluci%C3%B3n_superficie_de_vid_en_Argentina_2000-2008-2017 .pdf
- Northwest Argentina Region Report: http://www.inv.gov.ar/inv_contenidos/pdf/estadisticas/tespeciales/2018/REGION_NOROESTE_18_.pdf
- Report “The history of the secret terroirs of Argentina” by Agustín Lanús Salta Wine Clinic 2017
- The 100 wines chosen by Tim Atkin https://www.lanacion.com.ar/2134515-los-100-mejores-vinos-argentinos-segun-un-prestigioso-critico-ingles