Learning from the masters
Tastings are usually at the winery-restaurant, but on this lovely Sunday afternoon we’re surprised and pleased when the Etcharts graciously invite us onto the porch of their 120–year–old family home to chat as we taste some of their finer wines. We meet patriarch Arnaldo Etchart, the area’s wine pioneer, who developed the Etchart wines with great success in international markets. Etchart sold this operation and, most importantly, its brand, to the huge Pernod Ricard group of France in 1996. By then, the vines of the new undertaking, San Pedro de Yacochuya, were already taking root.
His son Marcos notes: “The estate is blessed with high altitude, low humidity and rainfall, good terroir and water, sunny hot days and cool nights.” Perfect! The grapes are cultivated espaldero style—stakes at each end of the row, joined by wires to guide growth vertically, and drip irrigated. It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the fine Yacochuya wines and the charming Etchart family who created them.
Next day, two more wineries await. Bodega el Esteco, named after a mythical golden city swallowed by an earthquake, markets as the Michel Torino brand. It’s a big producer, using state–of–the–art equipment and we’re amused to see the old concrete wine–aging tanks are now used by workers to store their bicycles.
Our guide Andres Hoy, an agronomist and longtime colleague of the Torino family, takes us into the vineyards for a unique opportunity to learn, not about the way the wine is made, but about the vineyards that produce the grapes. The 1,070 acres of vines on this estate and 750 acres in the Calchaqui Valley produce more than three million liters of wine annually that are exported to 39 countries across the globe.
Many blocks of old vines are still managed traditionally, with flood irrigation and grapes growing overhead on pergolas. Some red varieties are being retrained through vigorous pruning to grow along trellises. Blocks of newer trellised plantings are irrigated via the computer–controlled stress–drip method.
“We’re constantly experimenting to see how we can improve the product,” says Hoy. He shows us how leaf shapes identify grape varieties and notes the wide variation in shape, size and color of the grapes. It’s harvest time, so we sample the juicy ripe grapes and discover that this vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon hints at green peppers.
Back at the tasting room, we’re introduced to four Esteco labels – Elementos, Altimus, Ciclos and Don David, in order from least to most expensive. Afterwards, we’re invited over to Patios de Cafayate, the 360–year–old luxury hotel attached to the bodega. Here we could definitely spend a week or more and perhaps try a wine bath in the spa!
After a lunch of empanadas (and an icy beer break from wine) in Cafayate’s town square, we’re off to El Porvenir de los Andes winery. Century–old adobe walls and huge old casks of algarrobo wood demonstrate past wine-making methods, but today all is stainless steel and new oak. Our hostess, Adriana Barrionuevo, offers us generous tastings of Laborum and Amauta, the winery’s two lines. She tantalizes Fede with pourings that he’s allowed to swirl and sniff but not drink because he’s the driver! With production limited to 200,000 bottles a year, these wines are hard to come by in North America so we buy a bottle of the excellent Laborum Malbec 2004 to enjoy with dinner. And we save a bit for Fede.
At the charming Cafayate Wine Resort, we take a day off to relax and discuss our favorite wines and wineries. We agree that grapes at altitude definitely produce wines with attitude! And we applaud the dedication to their craft shown by each of the wineries we visited.
Spanish translation has it that “Hasta la vista” is a vague phrase meaning “see you some time, maybe,” but “Hasta luego” means “see you soon.” We’re opting for Hasta luego to this part of an amazing country.
Story by Lorie and Paul Bennett. Photos by Paul Bennett.
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