Grape Destinations: Healdsburg to Cafayate, with Malbec and Torrontes

It just takes one grape to magically transport you from one place to another, at least in your mind. That happens when you taste a wine that clicks on your memoirs. I have had several wine-related beyond-and-back moments. Recently, my latest such experience occurred while tasting one wine at Ferrari Carano’s tasting room in Healdsburg. A coupage of sangiovese, malbec, petit sirah, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel from 2013 – using a Sonoma County blend, Sienna 2014 – caught my eye on the wine list. The name, Sienna, is historic city in my beloved Tuscany, and the blend is made with malbec, petit sirah, and their friends.

Malbecs from Cafayate, Salta, Argentina

It is so palate-friendly that I began storytelling about the best malbecs from Cafayate, Salta, Argentina. Where is Salta? Salta is a province and a city in the northwestern part of Argentina. Everybody calls it Salta, La Linda – Salta, the Pretty. One of the towns up in the mountains of Salta is Cafayate; it used to be small when I went there, but has become the place to admire high-altitude vineyards. That’s a good excuse to go back.

There are now various wineries on Cafayate, but remember this name: Etchart. Way before anyone talked about wines from Cafayate, there was Arnaldo Etchart and his torrontes. Torrontes is a common white varietal, a close friend to poor soils. Etchart launched this area’s potential for world-quality wines, teaming up with the traveling winemaker Michel Rolland to produce the best wines at that altitude.

I had the opportunity to enjoy my first torrontes ever, analyzed by Don Arnaldo, at his Cafayate house many years ago. A bouquet of pomelo and a great dry finish were part of the conversation. After that, we had an explanation of high-altitude malbec; a walk around the vineyards and a tasting of exquisite malbecs came before any app on wine was invented. I understood then why Charles de Gaulle loved this wine.

Don Arnaldo Etchart passed last year, but his family still owns the San Pedro de Yacochuya farm. San Pedro de Yacochuya is still among my favorite malbecs. It is intense, aromatic, and vibrant, with some black pepper and even clove.

To get from Buenos Aires to Cafayate, you can find several flights to Salta and then rent a car to Cafayate. The drive is over three hours on a picturesque road. Every turn has a spectacular natural beauty. You can also fly to the nearby province of Tucuman and drive over four hours to get to Cafayate. It is better to stay for a couple of days and enjoy the culture, the wines, and the food. There are now several hotels and hostels to stay.

Since you are already up north, plan to go to Jujuy, a province in the Argentinian northwest that has the iconic Quebrada de Humahuaca valley and Cerro de los Siete Colores near Purmamarca.

I have been in Argentina a couple of times and Cafayate brings me some good memories of friendly people, Quechua heritage, good wines, beautiful sunsets filled with a palate of colors from earthy to blue, and the sound of the wind. It is a place where challenges have become part of an internationally renowned region, the high-altitude terroir for malbec and torrones.

Healdsburg in Sonoma reminded me of these Argentinian flavors for a while. Cafayate is calling my name again, in this or another lifetime.

— Amanda Díaz de Hoyo

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