Join the Two-Mile High Club—Drink Torrontes from Salta
We’re heading to the Argentinian province of Salta to explore a wine region high up in the Andes Mountains that produces exquisite wine from an indigenous grape varietal.
How far up?
As high as 10,206 ft. Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 5,413 ft.
Which indigenous grape varietal?
Torrontes. Technically, there are three different grape varieties in Argentina with Torrontes in their name. Unless otherwise stated, when we mention Torrontes in this post, we’re referring to Torrontes Riojano, which we will discuss in greater detail below.
Geography and wine region
Salta is both a province and a city. Salta is also Argentina’s most northerly wine region. While Torrontes is grown throughout Argentina, it is our opinion that the best quality wines come from Salta.
The Calchaqui Valleys (Valles Calchaquies) is the top-producing wine region in northern Argentina. It spans across the provinces of Salta, Catamarca, and Tucuman. Currently, the Calchaqui Valleys represents about 2% of total vineyards in Argentina. However, the quality of that 2% makes it worth seeking out.
Within both the Calchaqui Valleys and the Salta province is the town of Cafayate. The area surrounding the town is referred to as the Cafayete wine region. This region contains 75% of the vineyards of Salta and over half of the total vineyards in the Calchaqui Valleys. It is the heart of production for northern Argentina.
The climate is continental, which means that there is a great difference between the hottest and coldest months. Salta benefits from more than 300 days of sun per year. Yet, in the winter, temperatures can drop below freezing with occasional snowfall.
It also has large diurnal range, which means there is a large difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures. During the growing season, the average daytime temperature is 80°F; while the average nighttime temperature is 50°F. The warm daytime heat helps ripen the fruits, resulting in more concentrated flavors, and the cool nighttime temperature helps the grapes retain their acidity, which balances out the flavors.
The Andes Mountains create a rain shadow over Salta, resulting in low levels of precipitation. This isn’t a problem because the mountains provide plenty of water for irrigation.
The soils are of alluvial origin, very poor, and mostly made of sand and stones.
Most Argentinian vines are ungrafted (i.e., grown on their own roots). Phylloxera is present but it’s not a veracious biotype. It doesn’t survive long in soil with such a high proportion of sand, and it doesn’t attack the vines beyond what they can recover from.
In Salta, there is a blend of new and old vineyards. Over a third of Salta’s vines are over 100 years old.
Because of the elevation of the vineyards in Salta (between 5,413 and 10,206 ft), the vines naturally protect themselves from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields, concentrated grapes, and thick skins.
Grape varieties and wine
There are three distinct Torrontes varieties: Torrontes Mendocino, Torrontes Sanjuanino, and Torrontes Riojano.
Torrontes Riojano is considered the best quality and the most aromatic grape of the three. It is the grape that grows dominantly in Salta. Torrontes Riojano is a natural cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica (aka the Mission grape). Those two grapes were brought to Argentina more than two centuries ago. The natural cross occurred in Argentina so it is considered an indigenous grape of Argentina.
At its best, Torrontes Riojano produces wines that are high in acidity and intensely floral and fruity, with medium body. It’s not uncommon to find aromas and flavors of jasmine, rose petal, geranium, lychee, lemon, stone fruit, and melon. It is generally a dry wine, but there are both off-dry and sweet versions. Even the dry versions can smell sweet so be sure to check if you actually taste residual sugar on your tongue as compared to ripe fruit flavors and aromas.
Because of the floral notes and sweet fruit aromas, Torrontes matches well with exotic spices, aromatic herbs, and fruit.
With its high acidity, Torrontes is also a wonderful match with charcuterie and cheese.
Wines we enjoyed for educational purposes . . .
Colome, Estate Torrontes 2018, Valle Calchaqui, Salta, Hess Collection Winery, $14
This wine had medium plus acidity and a medium body. The ABV was 13.5%. The finish was medium plus. Aromas and flavors of rose, lychee, lemon pith, jasmine, flint, peach, and eucalyptus.
Areyna, Torrontes 2018, Valle de Cafayete, Salta, Vine Connections, $14
The wine had high acidity and a medium minus body. The ABV was 13%. The finish was medium plus. The aromas and flavors were honeysuckle, orange, grapefruit, rose, lavender, and apricot.
Salta has a lot going for it viticulture-wise: old vines; warm, dry summers; poor, alluvial soils; fresh mountain water for irrigation; and a large diurnal range. Then throw in an indigenous grape, and you are striking gold.
I’m been pushing this wine for a decade plus; yet, the price has barely moved. It’s baffling to me considering it’s always been a home-run introducing it to friends. But that means you, the Teakwood Tavern reader, can take advantage of this blip in the otherwise expensive wine market.
Torrontes from Salta is the type of wine that should be in everyone’s refrigerator at home. It’s unique. It’s flavorful. It’s inexpensive. It’s delicious.
Sending love from miles up,