A glass of Malbec, a tender rump steak, a measured smattering of chimichurri, and a charming view of distant, snow-capped Andean peaks. It is easy to see the allure of Argentina’s wine region. Mendoza province produces over half of the country’s wine and foreign visitors flock to soak up some sun and sample the produce. But while Mendoza and its surrounding vineyards are lovely, the wine region extends far into north-western Argentina, and a winding, mountainous road trip is perhaps the best way to not only see more of the country, but to widen one’s wine horizons.
Separated from Chile by the Andes mountain range and stretching up to the highlands on the Bolivian border, Argentina’s northwest is rugged and rocky. The altitude-climate dynamic makes for interesting winemaking conditions. Even during the summer months, when the sun shines strongly, the temperature plummets overnight. This temperature drop is what sets Argentina (and Chile) apart from the big wine-producing regions around the world of Europe, Australia and California.
Within Argentina, the altitude changes significantly from place to place and, for this reason, any wine connoisseur should make an effort to venture away from the comfort of Mendoza’s wide, leafy boulevards and head north. However, one should certainly not ignore Mendoza. The vineyard experience is so varied there: from vast vineyards that export internationally right down to tiny, family-run establishments, where history seems to seep out of the tanks and the owners follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. The path from grape to bottle is the same as it always has been and one can almost picture the scene of the great grandfather manoeuvring barrels one hundred years earlier.
On the drive north, the scenery changes slightly. The road bends luxuriously through the red and jagged rock face. It is a road tripper’s dream and at every turn the rock contorts itself into a different shape. Near Cafayate, the ‘hill of seven colours’ comes into view. A peculiar, natural phenomenon, it arrogantly surveys its awestruck visitors as they pose for photos. Upon closer inspection, the colours blend into one another as you drive. I imagine every angle offers a unique view, and that the cloud cover and time of day alter one’s perception of it.
Cafayate itself is a lovely place. Where Mendoza has developed into a tourist hub, full of bookable tours and tipsy foreign cyclists, wobbling from one wine tasting to the next, Cafayate is lazy, perhaps more authentic. The main square oozes tranquillity, as people gather to play music, relax on benches and, of course, drink wine. Despite making less than 2% of the country’s wine, several prominent wine producers have invested heavily in the region, undoubtedly spotting the potential.
North-western Argentina may be famed for its wine, but there is a richer experience to be had for those looking to head a little deeper than Mendoza. Rent a car, drive off into the hills and see what you might find. If you’ve got the bottle…