An alternative Argentine wine route that is worth a second look.
While the flight was smooth and showed elements of grace akin to a condor, landing was rather less dignified. The introduction might have been bumpy but then this is Loma Bola in San Javier, Argentina’s paragliding capital.
Located in Tucumán — a former battleground in the fight for independence at the start of the 19th century — the northern province is also home to sugar-cane plantations, rolling hills, an empanada route and paragliding jump points.
But Tucumán is also home to a small yet flourishing wine route — it produces a million litres a year, the same as Uruguay’s national output — that includes neighbouring Catamarca. A more rural affair than Mendoza or Salta’s Camino del Vino, this northern, 600-km trail is worthy of inspection nonetheless for those after a leisurely pace. You’ll need the following: a vehicle, a sense of adventure and an empty boot to fill with cases of wine. A sense of adventure, you ask? Why else would I hook myself to a man I don’t know then let him run us off a hill at 1,600 metres above sea level?
Rich in nature and history, tuck into stunning panoramas, a plethora of outdoor activities and pre-Inca settlements between wineries – these two provinces are ideal for mixing travel with tannins.
Tuck into Tucumán
Leaving capital San Miguel behind, 90 minutes on the sinewy Route 307 leads to Tafí del Valle, a small valley town. Ponies and small herds of cows graze peacefully alongside the road, oblivious to passing traffic. After sun-trap San Miguel de Tucumán, Tafí sees temperatures drop come nightfall year-round, thanks to its 1,900-metre altitude.
Check into Hotel Mirador for a comfy stay; manager Mandy Danon might be a familiar face for those addicted to 2012’s Soñando por cantar. Stay in for dinner or head out to Los Alisos or El Puesto; the former is a smart affair dealing in regional dishes with modern flair such as llama stew, while the latter is an adorable closed-door restaurant in a tiny rustic kitchen run by Valeria Critto (her husband Jerónimo deals in horse-riding expeditions.)
The next day, set off early and head an hour north into Calchaquí Valley, stopping off at El Infiernillo — a hellish spot inhabited by a few hardy families — at 3,042 metres for some llama cuddling before visiting the Ruinas de los Quilmes. This fascinating pre-Inca settlement was inhabited by the Quilmes indigenous people in the eighth century until the Spaniards arrived; legend has it that the tribe’s women chose suicide over a new life with the colonialists. Walk into the hills and look down at the town for a lesson in 1,200-year-old geometry — that meticulous precision is also applied across the Calchaquí Valley to today’s vineyards, a region that encompasses Salta, Tucumán and Catamarca.
Nearby is Las Arcas de Tolombón, a modern winery located in Calchaquí’s 1,600-metre, desert-like terroir. Not that barren — Las Arcas produces voluptuous wines thanks to the area’s sunny climes, including Las Vacas Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as well as local white grape hero Torrontés. Book ahead for a tour and tasting — the in-house sommelier will show you the bodega’s cement egg tanks usually seen in cutting-edge Mendoza wineries before guiding you through a selection of wares.
In sleepy Colalao del Valle, there’s a veritable contrast at Altos La Ciénaga (Tel: 0381 593-2161). Rolando Díaz’s annual production doesn’t top 10,000 litres so it’s called vino casero. Despite the small quantity, Rolo uses tanks and plastic drums for fermentation as well as oak barrels for ageing: his three-strong line includes the house’s eponymous Syrah-led blend topped up with 20 percent Malbec and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon that sports plenty of fruit, leather, tannins and alcohol, the latter thanks to grapes grown at 2,300 metres above sea level and 350 days of sun each year.
His winery is being fixed up but call ahead and Rolo will welcome you into his home, a block from Colalao’s leafy square. What’s dreamier than tucking into fresh local cheese and cured meat in the shade of a vine arbour in a private courtyard while chatting idly with the enologist about his sacred grapes in Argentina’s northern wine region? (Answer, not much.)
Traversing the infamous Route 40 into Catamarca, Bodega Municipal de Haulfín (Tel: 0383 154-606-106) is a fascinating example of local government coming good: in 2011, taxes paid by Canadian mining company La Alumbrera were invested in constructing a pristine business that produces 335,000 litres a year. As Hualfín only purchases grapes from around 30 local families and pays them 10 centavos more than the average kilo, this is very much a local employment lung: the winery itself owns just two hectares. Here, in this dusty corner of Catamarca, temperatures can reach 40ºC in daytime but drop to 18ºC at night, meaning Haulfín’s Malbec and Torrontés are usually elevated in alcohol. Open Monday to Friday from 8am-8pm, stop by for a case of 50-percent oak-aged Malbec to support the community as well as your grape habit.
While El Shincal is Catamarca’s most renowned archeological site, its most notable wine-producing region is Fiambalá, around 50km from Tinogasta. These towns form part of the Ruta del Adobe, a historical trail taking in tiny villages, olive groves, churches constructed long before Argentina became an independent nation and vineyards. Besides constructing the Termas de Fiambalá hot springs, located 2,000 metres above sea level, the landscape has changed little except that bull-hide, grape-collecting bins have been replaced with plastic ones.
Close to the foothills is Bodega Tizac Vicien, a winery with substantial pedigree that Carlos Arizú, cousin to the Arizús of Luigi Bosca, purchased from Graffigna Wines in 2000. This is a great opportunity to sample organic wares that usually head directly to European terroir for consumption. And what better than a guided tour from Carlos? Tranquility reigns among the Tempranillo, Tannat and Syrah vines, three of Tizac’s 11-strong repertoire overlooked by the colourful Andean foothills.
History, unique terroir and wines produced at altitude that are gaining a reputation for quality: this alternative Argentine wine route is worth a second look.