DREAMSCAPES Fall/Winter 2017
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AN UNLIKELY PAIRING OF WINE AND ADVENTURE
 
(2017 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: MARK JOHANSON



My first night under the desert sky of northwestern Argentina began simply enough with a bottle of Malbec and a pile of nugget-sized empanadas.

But within minutes of arriving at La Casona del Molino, a Spanish-colonial mansion in the provincial capital of Salta, my new Argentinean amigos made sure our candlelit table got a lot more crowded.

First came the skewers of blood sausages (morcilla); then a platter of Argentina’s world-renowned steaks. And to top it off, a dessert of goat’s cheese smothered in the fibrous jam of a cactus fruit called chayote. All the while I listened to a man wearing a black-rimmed hat who propped himself against a stucco wall in the corner of La Casona’s interior patio to wail zamba folk songs at a crowd eager to sing along. For them, it was a night like any other at the peña. Personally, it was my first glimpse at why this remote corner of Argentina is capturing the hearts of international visitors like never before.

Peñas are folk-music clubs characteristic of the towns along this dusty Andean frontier where Argentina bumps up against Chile and Bolivia. Salta is the largest city in these parts and it’s famous among Argentineans for its folk singers, as well as its crumbling colonial architecture.

Spanish conquistadors founded this city in 1582. Its cobblestone plazas, soaring mansions and pastel cathedrals are a testament to its glory days as a strategic outpost halfway between Lima and Buenos Aires. Yet, I didn’t come to Salta Province for its architecture. And the fabulous folk music? That was a happy coincidence. I came to this forgotten corner of Argentina to leave its capital city in my rear-view mirror.

My objective: Bask in Salta’s multicoloured mountainscapes while sipping its underappreciated wines.

SOARING INTO THE PRE-ANDES

On my second day in Salta I hired a driver named Puma (who looked more like a wolf than South America’s enigmatic mountain lion) to take me on a three-day loop tour out of the city and over to the far side of the province where vineyards encircle a small tourist town named Cafayate (not to be confused with the more popular Patagonian hub of El Calafate).

To get there, Puma and I spent our first day dipping into the verdant Escoipe Gorge and zigzagging up Bishop’s Slope into the oxygen-thin pre-Andes mountain range. We stopped at a 3,400-metre-high overlook to seek the blessing of Archangel Raphael (patron saint of all travellers) in a chapel built in his honour. After sampling some llama sausage from a thatched stall next door we continued onward into the rust-red hills of Los Cardones National Park. The reserve is famous for its cartoon-like cacti, which appear on the horizon like an army of green ghosts wandering through a desert plain.

We reached the adobe homes and time-forgotten streets of Cachi just in time for a quick dinner and a comfortable stay at La Merced del Alto, an old alfalfa-growing estate turned boutique hotel. The next morning Puma and I stopped by the Church of San Jose de Cachi to check out its unique roof. The mud-brick walls of the church are adorned with banana-coloured paint, and when we looked up, we saw the pockmarked wood of interwoven cacti logs.

Soon after we forged onward past the archeological ruins of a pre-Inca city called La Paya into the Gorge of Arrows. A highlight of the annual Dakar Rally, it bears a striking resemblance to the Canadian Badlands.

On the far side of this spectacular geological rift lie the vineyards of Cafayate, Argentina’s second major wine centre after Mendoza.

WINE TASTING IN CAFAYATE

If Mendoza is Argentina’s Napa Valley, then Salta is its Sonoma, more down to earth and approachable than its famous neighbour. And while Mendoza may be the big bold land of Malbec, Cafayate is dominated by the more demure Torrontes, a white wine grape that grows exceptionally well in its cold and windswept valleys.

Torrontes has a deceptively sweet nose (like a Riesling) that belies its dry finish. To learn more about this unique Argentine wine I made my way to Bodega Domingo Molina and signed up for a guided tour of the property. Salta is home to among the highest altitude vineyards in the world, and the best bottles come from wineries like this one in and around Cafayate.

For a late lunch I drove across town with Puma to the breezy hilltop restaurant at Piattelli Vineyards, where we ordered juicy steaks (cooked jugoso) and paired them with a peppery Piattelli Malbec. In need of a wine nap, I then booked a room at Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel, a stunning colonial estate attached to El Esteco winery.

The pool out back was perfect for a post-nap sunset swim amid the vines. I dined shortly thereafter in the hotel’s La Rosa restaurant, sitting under a sea of stars at one of the poolside wrought-iron tables. The waiter recommended an Andean quinoa salad with a glass of Don David, a refreshing Torrontes made from the grapes (barely visible at this late hour) along the property’s edge.

TRAVERSING THE SHELL GORGE

I left the wines behind on my last day in Salta Province as I entered into the region’s most spectacular landscape yet: the fossil-rich Shell Gorge. The remnants of an ancient lakebed, it boasts multicoloured mountains thanks to the oxidation of minerals, such as sulfur (yellow), iron (red) and copper (green), over thousands of years.

There’s also a menagerie of otherworldly rock formations to stop and see, such as Devil’s Throat and the Amphitheatre. In both you’ll find solid rock taking on blanket-like folds and improbable swirls as if designed by an abstract expressionist. The latter is the site of a prehistoric waterfall on the scale of Niagara Falls and, thanks to its unrivalled acoustics, the amphitheatre lures some of the best folk singers away from Salta’s peñas to record their albums.

On the final leg of my journey back to Salta we skirted past a ghost town called Germany (Alemania) and an artificial lake that’s fast becoming a popular weekend retreat for Salta’s elite. Green fields of tobacco gave way to small adobe villages on Salta’s edge before we finally entered the big city for one last night amid its crumbling colonial charms.

It wasn’t long before I found myself back at the peña where a new folk singer, draped in a checkered poncho, leaned against the stucco wall to sing a familiar tune. The crowd sang along, belting lyrics into the heavy air as a grill filled the room with the smoky smell of Argentinean meats.

I may have come to Salta to try its sun-scented wines and take in its dramatic scenery, but I flew away from this overlooked corner of northwestern Argentina humming the tunes of its hometown folk heroes.

Travel Planner

For more information on Salta, visit turismosalta.gov.ar. For help planning a custom trip through Salta Province, contact Say Hueque: sayhueque.com

For accommodation, consider:

Hacienda de Molinos in Molinos: haciendademolinos.com.ar

La Merced del Alto in Cachi: lamerceddelalto.com

Legado Mitico in Salta: legadomitico.com

Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel in Cafayate: patiosdecafayate.com

 
 
 
 
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