The History of wine in Argentina and Cafayate
Viticulture was brought to Argentina during the Spanish colonization and later on by the Christian Jesuit missionaries (they were clearly onto a good thing!). It was Father Juan Cedrón who established the first vineyard in Argentina in the 16th century with cuttings from the Chilean Central Valley. The wine industry came much later to Cafayate as the town was not founded until 1840 by Manuel Fernando de Aramburu, at the site of a mission. The first vines came shortly afterwards. And they have certainly made up for things since! It was the French pioneers who helped establish the Argentinian wine industry – agronomist Miguel Aime Pouget brought grapevine cuttings from France to Argentina and not surprisingly some of these were the first Malbec vines.
In recent years the Salta region, and particularly our sub-region of Cafayate, has been getting a lot of positive worldwide attention because of the full bodied whites made from Torrontés Riojano (Argentina’s only truly original wine and similar in floral nature to Viognier) and our fruity reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Malbec.
The Cafayate region is located at 1,660 meters above sea level (that’s 4980 bottles of wine stacked one on top of each other) in the river delta between the Rio Calchaqui and the Rio Santa Maria. Our climate has a foehn effect which traps rain producing cloud cover in the mountains and leaves the area dry and sunny. In summertime it can get to a scorching 38 °C but at night the temperatures can go as low as 12 °C with a threat of frost during the winter when temperatures can drop as low as -6 °C. Despite producing less than 2% of Argentina’s yearly wine production, the reputation of the Cafayate region, with just 19 wineries, is growing fast due to international recognition and award-winning wines. The vineyards simply stretch for miles right up to the foothills of the Andes – this is truly a winemaker’s paradise. The terroir has shaped the lives of the local people and most certainly the wines from this region.
The soil types in Cafayate are varied, with mostly free-draining sandy loam, and some more pebbly pockets. These dry soils cause stress in the vines, leading them to produce less vegetation and fewer grapes, reducing the overall yield and contributing to the high levels of concentration in the resultant wines. Cafayate has a desert climate with low rainfall and humidity, and the vines need irrigation from the melt-water rivers in the area to keep them hydrated over the summer. It’s a harsh terrain but with love and attention all the hard work is rewarded with spectacular wines with distinctive regional characteristics.
The terroir in Cafayate is particularly well suited to the Torrontes Riojano variety, which produces floral, crisp white wines with a surprising depth of flavor – perfect to drink on any veranda overlooking the Calchaqui valley and distant snow-capped peaks. Full-bodied, richly structured wines made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are also produced in Cafayate.
Love and Respect for the Terrior – The El Porvenir Story and the 2016 Harvest
In the year 2000 the team at El Porvenir decided to create a new project with a more exclusive target market, designing a premium winery with small batches of very high quality wine, limiting production to a maximum of 200,000 bottles per year. Today, the winery based in Cafayate is managed by Lucía Romero-Marcuzzi, who works with a distinguished team of 50 people following the legacy of their ancestors with a remarkable innovative spirit.
In order to preserve the quality of their grapes, they implemented a double selection line so only the best grapes are transported to tanks to be fermented. In the winemaking process, Lucia and her team aim to care for the grapes and waste as little as possible, using gravity as the method to maintain their purity.
There’s also a barrel room with 400 American and French oak barrels dedicated to the ageing of their high altitude wines that express the best of Cafayate.
According to El Porvenir Agronomic Engineer Santiago Bugallo: “In Cafayate I have been able to bring together the two great passions of my life: the vineyards and the mountains. This valley with its rocky soils, its wide day-night temperature variation and its altitude is the ideal birthplace of great wines.” This is a winery with international gravitas – esteemed vintner Paul Hobbs of iconic Opus One fame from the Napa Valley (he has also worked for Robert Mondavi) has been consulting for the past six years and brought his wealth of experience to this family business.
We asked Dianne Romero, Marketing Director of El Porvenir about the 2016 harvest.
Tell us about the 2016 Harvest at El Porvenir
“Last summer was very dry in Cafayate with very little rainfall. By early March just 70 mm fell with much southern hemisphere sun. As a result, the team over at El Porvenir started harvesting 2 weeks earlier than last year and the quality of the fruit is looking to be excellent. They started the harvest with Malbec the first week of February and by early March they were harvesting their Syrah. This was followed by the harvest of Torrontes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and lastly, Tannat. El Porvenir believes that this is going to be a great year in terms of quality, especially with Torrontes, Malbec and Tannat.”
So all of us should be very excited to start drinking from the 2016 vintage but let’s dig a little deeper to understand a little more of this winemaker’s philosophy.
What inspires you to make the wines you do at El Porvenir?
“We are a family winery and this defines our winemaking. We believe in Cafayate, in its potential, its people, its history and its culture. We feel a deep respect and love for our terroir and we want our wines to reflect this. Our wines are an invitation to travel on a journey of improvement and discovery that we undertook a long time ago, here in Cafayate. Undoubtedly, this, and our place in the world, is what inspires our family to make wines.”
What is a typical day like during harvest time?
“The harvest in the vineyards starts at 6.30 am, with the first grapes coming to the winery at 9.30 am where everything is prepared to crush the grapes using the double selection belt. In the meantime there are workers in the tanks doing pump over or remontage, yeast inoculation to the tanks, sending the wine after fermentation to the oak barrels, cleaning the winery, etc. This is the busiest and most important time of year for the winery, which is why we work 24 hours with two shifts and 2 people coming during the night time to check temperatures.”
How does the unique climate, soil and altitude of Cafayate influence the wines you make?
“Our vines are located at an altitude of 1,750 meters above sea level in a unique and privileged region, with an extreme desert climate, offering warm days and cool nights, very little rainfall and plentiful sunlight. This hasn’t changed over the years with the exception that some years it has rained more than usual or some years, like this one, it has been a little warmer and drier than usual. But the main characteristics given by the altitude hasn’t changed. The principal factor influencing the vines is the day-night temperature variation, which allows the grapes to become very concentrated and at the same time very ripe, resulting in wines with smooth, round tannins. Cafayate is a small, isolated valley with very special characteristics—it is a desert climate and poor soils benefit the production of high quality grapes, making it easy to practice integrated, sustainable and organic viticulture.”
How do Argentinian wines compete on a global stage and what sets them apart?
“The success of Argentinian wines is based on the very good quality and price ration, and on the popular acceptance our Malbec has had in the world. We are able to make wines that are ready to drink earlier, that show the quality of the fruit and that are very different than other places. We have excellent quality of wines in all price ranges and I think this is very appealing for consumers. Also Malbec is an easy to drink and approachable variety – the same with Torrontes and its aromatic expression which sets it apart.”
What does the future of the wine industry in Cafayate look like?
“We are convinced that Cafayate has a great future in the wine industry because of it uniqueness and there is still a lot of potential to continue to grow, to improve, to learn about our terroir and to have more consumers discover Cafayate and its wines. Now that Argentina is well known for the Malbec and Mendoza, we need to start showing that we are making great wines all over the country and that we are making great Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Syrah, and of course Torrontes.”
Are there any trends in the wine industry that you have had to adapt to?
“One trend that we as a small winery have adapted is the use of screw cap closure for white wines, rosé and for young and fruity red wines. This was more in demand from the export markets, like the US, UK and the rest of Europe, but since we started this 5 years ago we had a great response from local consumers as well.
In terms of the wine, the international trend is less use of oak, to show more fruit, and to have fresher fruit to give elegance to the wine.”
How do you celebrate harvest time?
“At the end of the harvest, normally in April, we gather all the workers from the vineyard, the winery and our offices and we make a big asado with the main purpose to celebrate together and to share our experience during these intense months. We end up dancing with nice music, relaxing, and celebrating a new vintage.”
You had Tim Atkin – a respected UK wine expert – visit recently. Did he have any advice?
“Tim was very surprised by the quality and the distinctiveness of the wines from Cafayate. His favorite was the Tannat and he told us that we should be planting more Tannat because it’s the grape that best adapts and thrives in this region.”
So there you have it, a little taste of what this spectacular region has to offer. But don’t just take our word for it – hop on a plane, take some tango lessons in Buenos Aires and then make the pilgrimage to Cafayate and drink to your heart’s content.