By Monty Style
Day 15 – From Salta City to Los Molinos
We drive south to Los Cerillos, then west into some of the most beautiful mountain scenery imaginable from Los Cerillos to Cachi and Molinos.
We scale the Cuesta del Obispo (Pass of the Bishop), a dramatic feat of engineering but not a worrying, vertigo-inducing road. It climbs gradually up through green farmland somewhat reminiscent of Perthshire until near the peak your mind shifts to the red and gray of the Torridon Hills in Wester Ross. Except of course for the height and overall scale. Highest point on road 3380 m.
Once you’re heading down towards Cachi in the vast empty expanse of the Calchaquíes Valley Nature Reserve, the road is brand-new asphalt and lay-bys invite photography. In the distance the Nevado de Cachi appears, dark at the base, its snow-covered ridge heading hundreds of kilometers north.
Approaching Cachi (2200 m) we jam on the brakes so as not to miss a field of red peppers drying in the sun. Shortly thereafter a consensus is quickly reached on the location for our picnic lunch, acquired along with diesel before leaving Legado Mitico.
Make a short stop in peaceful Cachi. Then south on an unpaved road to the remote Hacienda de Molinos where we’re staying two nights in this erstwhile Spanish colonial Governor’s home. Post-sunset drinks in the softly lit courtyard before an excellent dinner near two Argentine families at a long table with a total of 6 beautiful and well behaved children.
Poised to drive up tomorrow to the Colomé winery owned by the Swiss Hess Family, who have wineries all over the world.
Day 16 – Visit to Colomé
We drive 45 minutes slowly up an unpaved road to Colomé. Semi-desert, the usual dry riverbeds, sand or red earth, rocky mountains on either side. Colomé is south west of Molinos in a side valley off the long Valles Calchaquíes and is a small community built around the winery founded in 1831, now owned by the Hess family. Donald and Ursula Hess live in Canton Bern in Switzerland and own several wineries including Amalaya (further south, near Cafayate), several in California and a stake in Peter Lehmann, South Australia. Their sons are gradually taking over the business.
There is the bodega (winery), a restaurant, the estancia (visitor accommodation) and the James Turrell Museum. Staff live in the immediate area and the place is self-sufficient food-wise (own fruit, vegetables, sheep, cattle and wine).
Turrell, it turns out is world-famous and specialises here in light and space effects. One is walked thru several rooms and a corridor in which it is hard to keep your balance; in one room what looks like a wall is open space (when you get too close to oblivion a buzzer sounds). There is some beauty in the colours but it hard to engage with this kind of art. A bit of a challenge, keeps the mind open.
Lunch on the terrace is simple and delicious, we drink a misterioso white, probably Sauvignon from 100 year-old vines. Cool, fragrant, very pale, marvellous. Sad to relate, it’s made in tiny quantities and only available at the Bodega…Malbec, both pure and blended, is also good.
We spend the afternoon in the vineyards with Andres Trygve Hoy, a humorous young Argentine [of Norwegian stock] who is responsible for the vines. The winery is unofficially biodynamic [i.e. not certified]. Rainfall is 120mm a year! Irrigation is king.
Day 17 – Molinos to Tolombón via the San Pedro de Yacochuya winery
Stop for a leg-stretch after 2 hours in San Carlos, the first Spanish settlement in the area dating from around 1550. Friendly welcome, as usual, at a town square café. Coffee
followed by a malted 8% local beer, then empanadas of beef and cheese arrive, so a delicious low-cost lunch satisfies everyone including Anita, our honorary treasurer.
San Pedro de Yacochuya is up above and north west of Cafayate. It overlooks the valley which is several kms wide here and packed with vineyards. Arnaldo Etchart receives us with a cautious smile which evolves into a delightful twinkle during our visit and reveals a very warm character. San Pedro won a “top 5 bodegas” award from Parkers Wine Advocate in 2012. Michel Rolland, ubiquitous French winemaker/consultant, advises Marco and Arnaldo Etchart, especially on ways to improve the quality of vineyards and wines. Premium range is Yacochuya (YACO); second level San Pedro Yacochuya (SPY), whose 20 ha produce 90,000 bottles. 80% of vines are Malbec, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, a little Tannat and Torrontés (left). Third-level Coquena range is made from grapes from Tolombón vineyards a little further south.
Guevara-like Arnaldo leads us on his motorbike down to a vineyard where we taste Torrontés grapes. We are given 4 excellent bottles of San Pedro Yacochuya wine. A very rewarding visit to a fine small producer.
Day 18 – Tukma winery and route 68 back north to Salta
Down the road at the bodega, the harvest is in full swing and the illustrious Tukma consultant winemaker José Luis Mounier is in the bodega everyday while the grapes are processed and fermentation begins. Top red grapes go straight into new French oak barriques where the wine is barrel-fermented (barrels rolled around 3 times a day for a month so that there is even grape-oak contact). Only then are the barrique contents pressed and the early-stage wine returned to its barrique for malolactic (second) fermentation and maturing.
We taste several grape juices, all in their first 4 weeks of fermentation. A late-stage Cabernet Sauvignon is deep red and already tastes very promising. Mounier, who has a Michel Rolland background, is consultant winemaker to several wineries and has his own production marketed as Las Nubes. This seems to be a popular model. Wines do not vary much from one year to another, he says, unlike Bordeaux, except for unusually wet years. Logistics are complex and costly: bottles are locally manufactured but oak barrels, mainly from France, cost US$1000 each. The cases of bottled wines are transported over the Andes on the Mendoza-Santiago road and shipped from Valparaiso in Chile for points west, or via Buenos Aires for points east. As in the case of Colomé the business of moving bottled wine from these high-altitude, remote wineries with their steep, unpaved roads and river-fordings, to importers around the globe must be a challenge.
Tukma wines available in Switzerland from Casa de Vinos Argentinos.
Fact file: in the late 1980s Argentina exported US $5 million worth of wine. Today the figure is US $1 billion.
Final drive 3 hours north to Salta through the magnificent multicoloured Quebrada de las Conchas (ravine of the shells). After some light rain the great dry riverbeds are beginning to ripple with pale brown water. Several optimistic anglers spotted on the banks of the Rio Lerma. Arrived at Finca Valentina in pouring rain. Supper by a comforting log fire.
Day 19 – Back to Buenos Aires and home
Returned the dependable Renault Duster to Daniel at Salta airport. We covered 1200 kms in 7-8 days in the North West but it was at a very low average speed given the vertiginous hill climbs and descents and the many unpaved roads.
The scale and colours of the Northwest are utterly un-European. Resembles Northern Territory or Western Australia: red, dusty, dry riverbeds, dramatically coloured rocks but also Andean, i.e. very high altitudes, Atacama-like salt flats, and the indigenous people much better integrated than in Australia.
Northwest Argentina is the region to visit and Salta City is the base camp. We had to be selective and left out much of the country e.g. The Northeast, the Pampas, the Southern wine regions (Neuquen and Rio Negro) and Patagonia.
Our last 24 hours in BA were good: Robert, our host at Cabrera Garden, joined us for a perky glass of Mendoza sparkling, then we had a fun supper at trendy Astor Bistro. Artistic, sensible portions accompanied by more sparkling Chardonnay/Viognier and a Malbec blend. Friendly staff.
Night ended in a milonga, where locals dance tango – we wanted to see this, rather than a show for tourists. It is a formal, theatrical, precise art form. For young and old, short skirts, long dresses, jeans or dark suits. Very close upper body contact, hips and legs free for beautifully coordinated quick steps and motionless pauses, intense concentration, restrained passion. Beguiling.
Our taxi driver to Ezeiza airport, in response to a few well-chosen questions, gave us a fluent 60-minute commentary on the history of Argentina including the Falklands issue and the desaparecidos of the Dirty War. Extraordinary knowledge and dispassionate views.
In three weeks in Argentina we only met friendly, smiling, helpful people. British Airways did a much better job on the return flight.