Friday, June 27, 2014

Visiting the Museo de la Vid y Vino and Domingo Molina Winery

Museo de la Vid y el Vino in Cafayate, Salta
(March 18, 2014) – We started the day with a tour of the Museo de la Vid y el Vino located 2 blocks off the Cafayate Plaza.  It was a delightful experience with walls filled with poetry about wine, as well as the history of wine in the region, and exhibits of winemaking equipment.  Two highlights for me were seeing the old cement wine vats with a space underneath to light fires to insure the fermentation continued.  I had never seen this before, and I thought it was a great idea before the invention of temperature controlled tanks.  The other highlight was the fascinating video of the history of wine around the world.  I begged to buy a copy, but they said it wasn’t for sale.

Domingo Molina Winery – Cactus in the Vineyard

For lunch we headed south of town to visit Domingo Molina Winery, located in the foothills of the Andes, not far from San Pedro Winery.  The winery building itself is more of modern architecture, but is surrounded by vineyards filled with cactus. Nowhere else in the world have I seen tall cactus in the vineyard, and I found it truly fascinating.  Domingo Molina also has a cactus garden for tourists to visit.

Lunch in the Gardens of Domingo Molina Winery
Once again the view from the winery was breath-taking with the valley spread out below and the towering red mountains dominating the eastern skyline.  A round table with a white table cloth was set up under the trees on the front lawn, so we could enjoy a lunch of local meats, cheeses, salads, and empanadas, and gaze at the magnificent view while we sipped Torrontes and tannat.

Our hosts were brothers Osvaldo and Raphael Domingo who explained that they have two wineries – this one for high-end wine, and the much larger Domingo Hermanos in downtown Cafayate for mass market wine.  This location produces only estate wine with a production of around 10,000 cases, of which they export 80%.  Total vineyard size for both wineries is 60 hectares.

Social Sustainability – Indian Village to Give Back to the Community

What fascinated me most about the visit to this winery (besides the great wine and view) was the renovated Indian Village just above it, which we visited after lunch.  Osvaldo explained that their father believed in giving back to the community, so he built the village including a small chapel for the Indians to stay in during the winters.  Apparently many of them still live in the high Andes in the summer months, hunting, gathering herbs, and sleeping outdoors, in the ways of their ancestors.  But in the winter, they prefer to have real houses, so their father created a village of small traditional rock houses for them. 

Winemaking at Domingo Molina

Later we toured the cellars, and again harvest was in full swing.  There were four people at the sorting table, insuring only the best malbec grapes made it into the blend.  Renaldo, the winemaker, explained that they destem, crush, and then pump the must into concrete tanks lined with epoxy.  They try to use natural yeast, and an interesting turbo pigeage machine to punch down the cap.

Rupestre Wine from Domingo Molina
Total maceration time for Domingo Molina is 25 – 30 days maceration, with a fermentation temperature of around 27C.  They also allow ML to start naturally in the concrete tanks.  He explained that they prefer concrete because it maintains a more even temperature and saves electricity.  The wine is aged for around 12 months in oak at 30 – 50% new, depending on the price point.

For Torrontes, they generally harvest at 24 brix with 3. 7 ph, but will add 1 to 1.5 grams of acid to achieve desired 3.2 to 3.3 ph. After destemming and crush, they let the wine sit in tank for 8 hours with skins, then press. Commercial yeast is added, and the wine is fermented in stainless steel at 12 degrees C for around 25 days with no ML.  When finished the wine is racked and allowed to sit in tank for 6 months on light lees to add texture.  With the reserve wine, they may put 5% in oak.

I tasted the Domingo Molina Torrontes on three different occasions during my visit to Salta, and in every case it was excellent – delicate, floral and satisfying.  However, my favorite wine from this estate was the Ruprestre 2011.  It is a blend of 80% malbec, 10% merlot, and 10% tannat with 12 months in oak, 50% new.  The wine is full-bodied with great texture and long finish.  The name, “Ruprestre” is the name of a valley nearby where they actually filled the desert scene for Star Wars.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Checking into Patios de Cafayate Wine Resort & Dinner at Vinas de Cafayate, Argentina

Entrance to Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel

After the splendid tours and tasting of Bodegas Piattelli and San Pedro, I checked in the luxurious Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel.  This is a spacious old hacienda built of white stucco with a bell tower. The approach is magnificent as you enter a gated vineyard and traverse a long driveway to see the long white resort glowing in the sun and backlit by the red mountains rising behind.

The resort is also part of a working winery, Bodega El Esteco.  I spent 3 delightful nights here and enjoyed waking up every morning to the sound of birds calling, and watching the llamas graze on the green lawn near the swimming pool.  Breakfasts were delicious and service was attentive.

After resting for a couple of hours in my spacious room with tiled floors and 4 foot thick adobe walls, we were off again for dinner at another famous resort – Vinas de Cafayate. This is on the far side of the charming village of Cafayate with its spacious plaza and quaint shops.

Delicious Argentine Empanada
We drove up a long road towards the mountains, and then turned into the resort.  Also designed in the Spanish mission style with stucco and large wooden vegas, this resort was very welcoming and is highly rated.  We had an excellent dinner in the candlelight dining room, but I was so full from lunch at Piattelli that all I could manage was a large salad with the excellent local goat cheese. Of course we did manage to taste another bottle of local Torrontes and malbec, and no Argentine dinner would be complete without empanadas.  So even though I tried to resist, I couldn’t stop myself from trying two different types filled with meats and cheeses.  Definitely eating too many empanadas on this trip, but they are so hard to say no to!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Visiting the Famous San Pedro Yacochuya Winery – Four-wheel Driving & Cactus

View of Valley from San Pedro Winery
That afternoon we visited the famous Argentine winery called San Pedro Yacochuya where we met the Etchart brothers, Marcos the winemaker and Pablo the marketing expert. The winery achieved its fame partially because they hired Michel Rolland as their consulting winemaker, and became highlighted in the movie Mondevino. In actuality they hired Michel in 1988 before he became famous, and he worked his magic on the San Pedro Yacochuya Malbec.  Now Marcos continues the tradition, and the wine truly deserves its great reputation.  It is huge, complex, and brimming with concentrated dark berry and spice notes.

Getting to San Pedro requires a bit of four-wheel driving, as it is located past Bodega Piattelli and up a dirt road in the foothills of the Andes.  Large boulders and huge ruts plague the road, and a vehicle with high clearance is necessary to make it to the winery and tasting room.  However, the drive is well worth it as you arrive at a cactus lined road and see the winery – a large adobe structure with red titled roofs and a wrap around porch with a breath-taking view of the vineyards, valley, and moutains beyond.

Touring the Vineyard

When we arrived harvest was in full swing with large ancient trucks of malbec grapes being processed within the cool confines of the cellar.  Marcos and Pablo came out to greet us, shaking hands and welcoming us with typical Argentine warmth.  After a few minutes Marcos asked if we wanted to see the old malbec vineyard and we nodded enthusiastically.

San Pedro boasts 35 hectares of vines in two locations, but around the winery they have 22 hectares of malbec with some vines over 100 years old.  Marcos led the way into the vineyard and pointed at the soil.  He explained it was a mix of limestone, sand, and rocks, and show us a deep hole where they were doing soil analysis.

The vineyard elevation is 2000 meters, or 6000 feet high. It receives plentiful sun in the mornings, but in the afternoon the Andes mountains (rising 4500 meters tall behind the vineyard, or 13,300 feet) catch the clouds, which softens the sun and provides some shade.  Rainfall is only 250 ml rain per year, so drip irrigation is on the new vines just in case. 

Marcos explains that the old vines are using the parrel trellis system but newer vines are on VSP with spacing around 6 x 8.  When they have to plant a new vine, they use bud wood from the old ones so they can keep the clone consistent.  Interestingly one of the huge issues in vineyards here is ants.  Because of this it is difficult for vineyards to be certified organic.

Making the Famous San Pedro Malbec

Marcos, Winemaker
Back in the winery, Marcos covers the winemaking process for their famous malbec.  He said the grapes are usually harvested in March and April, and they get around 7 tons per hectare.  The grapes are carefully hand-sorted, destemmed and some berries are lightly crushed.  Next they are placed in stainless steel tanks for a 40 day maceration time, which includes a period of cold soak.

Because of the warm climate, the vineyard usually produces wines with high brix (around 16%) and low acid, therefore some acid is added to the must.  Marcos explains that malbec takes longer to ripen that other varietals.  It will achieve high sugar levels but the seeds are still green, so it needs to hang longer.  That’s why the high altitude with the cool nights is very helpful in Salta.

According to Marcos, Michel Rolland prefers to keep the winemaking as natural as possible, so native yeast are allowed to start the fermentation. Because of this, there have been vintages when total maceration time has gone as long as 60 days!

When complete the wine is pressed and then placed back in tank until ML is complete.  Next it is transferred to 70-80% new French oak barrels with 24 months of aging, with necessary topping and racking as needed.  The wine is not filtered unless necessary.

For the Torrontes, however, they do use commercial yeast– usually VC1 or 3 (French yeast) to enhance aromas of Torrontes.  It is fermented at 13 – 20 degrees C in stainless steel, no ML; then fined with Bentonite and filtered before bottling.

Tasting the Wines of San Pedro

After the tour, we were treated to a tasting of 6 wines.  We started with two different Torrontes, one unoaked and the other with slight oak.  The first was floral and delicate, whereas the second more tropical.  Fascinating!  Next we tried a rose of Malbec, and then two mablec/cabernet sauvignon blends.  My favorite, however, was tasting the flagship San Pedro Yacochuya out of barrel.  Composed of 100% malbec, it had a nose of violets and on the palate exploded in blueberries and black current with a velvety long finish.  Yum!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Driving from Salta to Bodega Piattelli in Cafayate, Argentina

Cafes in Salta Along the Plaza
(March 2014) We had flown into Salta the evening before, and after checking into our hotel walked several blocks to the main plaza. The sun was just sinking behind the green mountains and cast lovely light on the beautiful pink cathedral that dominated the square. We quickly found a sidewalk cafĂ©, and enjoyed a bottle of cold Torrontes with a platter of empanadas.  We watched people stroll around the plaza, and enjoyed the balmy evening as a few musicians played for us.

The next morning, we left early to drive the 2.5 hours south to the quaint town of Cafayate, where 19 of the 26 wineries of Salta are located.  On the way we traveled through the magnificent Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas, which is a canyon with huge red rock formations and a river cutting through it.  It looks like a mini Grand Canyon, and the color of the rock vary from orange, rose, red, yellow, and tan.  On the way, we stopped for a short hike through the Devil’s Throat rock formation, called Garganta del Diablo.

Lunch on the Terrace at Bodega Piatelli

We arrived around 1pm for our lunch appointment with Jon and Arlene, owners of the magnificent Bodega Piattelli.  This is one of the most beautiful wineries in Cafayate with stunning architecture, which seems to a delightful mixture of Spanish and modern.  The winery includes an expansive visitor center and gourmet restaurant along with the fermentation cellars and barrel room.  It is surrounded by flower filled gardens and fountains, and sits perched on the side of the hill with a breath-taking view of the valley and towering red-accented mountains beyond.

Red Rock Formations on Drive to Cafayate
Jon and Arlene grew up in Minnesota, but own property in both Arizona and Argentina, due to their preference for warm, sunny climates. Indeed, the landscape of Cafayate is very similar to the high mountain deserts of Arizona, complete with the large “cardon” cactus that bear a very similar appearance to the Saguaros of Arizona.

They started building Bodega Piattelli in 2009 and opened the production facility in 2012. The brand new hospitality center, however, just opened in March 2013, and is managed by the efficient Mariella.  Altogether they have 500 acres of vineyards and produce 50,000 cases. Consulting winemaker is Roberto La Mota, Chief Winemaker is Valeria Antolin, and full-time winemaker is Alejandro Nesman.

Lunch was a magnificent three-course meal on the patio overlooking the valley. We started with empanadas and a green salad served with a 2013 Piattelli Reserve Torrontes that had a delicate floral nose with great acidity.  This was followed by tenderly cooked lamb shank with local vegetable served with the 2010 Piattelli Trinita Grand Reserva. The wine had a nose and palate of spicy berry and coffee notes, with immense concentration and well-integrated generous oak.  It was black with glowing ruby depths and was a blend of malbec, cab, and merlot.

Bodega Piattelli in Cafayate, Salta Region
Jon also let us sample a not yet released 2013 Tannat that was deep, dark, and complex with spicy and earth. The Salta region is known for its Tannats, one of the few places on earth that crafts them as well as Uruguay (and there are those who say Salta makes better tannats…).  Dessert was fresh pineapple with torrontes syrup and ice cream.  Yum!

Over lunch, Jon, Mariella, and Arlene described some of their wine tourist activities they offer at Piattelli, and I was very impressed with the innovative options.  One is called a “Sundowners” where guest have wine and snacks on the patio while they watch the sun slowly set and turn the mountains from red to purple while listening to music.  Another option is a horseback ride through the vineyards to a grove of cactus, where they barbeque empanadas and shared glasses of torrontes and malbec.  Jon mentioned that one issue is that tourists have a hard time getting to Cafayate, so he created a website that explains all of the logistics.  It is called

Making Torrontes at Bodega Piattelli

After lunch we had a tour of the cellars with winemakers, Valeria and Alejandro.  Since they were harvesting Torrontes that day, we were able to watch and learn about the complete process.  They pick at a potential of 13% alcohol, crush and let sit 24 hours for skin contact.  Next they press, and then let rest for another 24 hours to let gross lees settle out.

Torrontes & Malbec at Piattelli
The juice is transferred to large stainless steel tanks and innoculated with 8x16 La Fort yeast that they have found is excellent to preserve the floral aroma profile of torrontes.  Acid is usually added because Cafayate is still quite a warm and sunny region, and most winemaking requires acid additions. However, interestingly, they harvest the Torrontes grapes at different times from different blocks.  This allows them to obtain more acid and citrus notes from earlier harvests, and white floral notes and tropical fruit from later pickings.

Fermentation temperature is 16F in stainless for 10 to 15 days. When finished, the wine is racked to a new tank and protected with CO2 gas while aging for 4 to 6 months.  A small percent – usually 15% -is aged in American oak, and blended prior to bottling. Bentonite is used for fining, and the wine is usually filtered.  The regular Torrontes is bottled in August, whereas the reserve (with more oak) is bottled in December.

For the malbec, we were told they harvest from 7am to 1pm, generally around 12 tons per day at 24 to 25 brix.  A portion of the malbec juice – usually 10 % - is bled off to concentrate the must.  This is sold for bulk wine.  Acid is adjusted, and BO213 La Fort yeast is added.  The total maceration time is usually 25 days at temp of 27C with frequent pump overs.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Salta, Argentina – One of the Most Beautiful Wine Regions in the World

Pink Cathedral in Salta
Dubbed by many to be one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, Salta is located in northern Argentina near the Bolivian border.  It is home to the highest altitude vineyards in the world with vines growing at over 10,000 feet high.

The major challenge for wine tourism in this region is arriving. Flights only come from Mendoza twice a week, or visitors have to start from Buenos Aires to catch a daily flight. Upon arrival in the town of Salta, it is another 2.5 to 3 hour drive south before arriving in Cafayete where 19 of the 26 wineries of Salta are located.

Most visitors opts to stay overnight in Salta, and enjoy the beautiful central plaza with its historic European style buildings, beautiful pink cathedral, and outdoor restaurants and bars. Here meat-filled empanadas can be enjoyed for as little as fifty cents with a glass of cold Torrontes for $3.

Where Mendoza lacks wine signage, Salta more than makes up for it with the well-marked Ruta del Vino that runs south to Cafayate and into the Andes mountains to the West. The road travels from the lush green mountains of Salta, and soon enters red-rocked canyons that resemble a mini Grand Canyon. Eventually the route delivers tourists into a wide valley ringed with 12,000 to 14,000 foot tall mountains. Vineyards are everywhere, many filled with “cardons,” giant Saguaro-like cacti. In the middle of the valley with two rivers running nearby is the small wine village of Cafayete.

Advantages of taking the long trek to reach Cafayate are that it is a friendly, clean, and safe town centered around a large plaza with outdoor restaurants and boutique hotels. Several wineries have tasting rooms just off the plaza, so wine tourists can walk to these, and then take a short drive outside of the town to visit others, such as Piatelli, Domingo Molina, San Pedro, and El Esteco. Tasting fees are more reasonable, and appointments are generally not necessary. There is also an excellent museum just off the square called Museo de la Vid y el Vino, where visitors can learn about the wines of Salta. The dry desert like climate generally means it is warm with 340 days of sun per year.