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vendredi, 21 août 2015



Claude Gilois

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In this summer season, it is tourism or rather wine tourism that will be the subject of your scribe’s chronicle. This form of tourism in wine countries is increasingly acknowledged among political deciders as a major line of development, especially in France, which is lagging behind other countries despite its history of viticulture, wine making and the richness of its terroirs.


It is without doubt Alsace that was the precursor on the notion of wine routes and there are many outstanding routes throughout the world, but the one about to be described combines beauty, eccentricity, wilderness, high altitude vineyards and a certain amount of potential danger which gives you a sense of achievement when you have done it.  Moving from a tropical to an arid landscape within  50 kms is unusual and finding the most elevated vineyards in the world is a real treat for wine-lovers. Driving on a road where overtaking is virtually impossible without the risk of ending up in a ravine can give you cold sweats and certainly raise your adrenalin to a high level.


To fully understand the landscape and viticulture of this region, it is best to start the trip in Bolivia which has a border with Argentina. You will have to make some short plane hops in Bolivia to finally arrive in Salta which will give you the impression of moving one step forward and two steps back, but this wine route is worth the effort to get there. The Bolivian vineyards are one of the highest in the world and the vines are planted between 1650 and 2150 metres of altitude in the south mainly in the Santa Ana valley near the town of Tijuana which, with 3000 hectares of wines, is the largest wine region of Bolivia. It is a most unlikely region for grape growing as viticulture is located between latitude 17o and 22o south, well outside the accepted geographical limits for viticulture.  Uncommonly, rain falls mostly in their summer between December and March (remember we are in the southern hemisphere!) during the period of grape maturation. This is very unusual and few major wine-growing countries have this inverse rain pattern.


The temperatures are relatively modest as we are still near the equator, and not yet in the intertropical zone of convergence where the weather is highly unpredictable.

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There is only one other major wine region in the world that can boast this particular weather pattern with an inverse rain pattern and warm weather without excessive heat, and this is the Shandong region in Central East China, the main wine region of the country. Wines produced in these two regions can be very elegant with a low alcoholic content (around 12.5o) in good a vintage, but they can exhibit characteristics of lack of physiological ripeness with the classic flavors of green peppers. There are six domains of international quality in Bolivia  (La Concepción, Casa Real, Kohlberg, Aranjuez, Campos de Solana and Sausini)  but the market is distorted in terms of price by the eccentric position of the wine region in a mountainous area with difficult access which pushes the cost of transport that, in some cases, can be higher than the cost of the wine.




In northern Argentina, the landscape is very different, the mountainous chain blocks a great deal of the rain and even though the weather pattern remains the same with higher rain in summer than in winter, it is divided by two in Salta and by four in Cafayate during the maturation of the grape.  On the other hand, the temperatures are much higher as we move further away from the equator and the wines are heavier and the alcohol level can reach 16.5o as in the Yacochuya domain where Michel Roland is consultant.  A visit to the domain, scheduled weeks in advance does not guarantee you a tasting of the wines whether or not you are trade. We had to resort to buying a bottle from the local wine shop in Cafayate, but with a temperature of about 35oC at lunchtime overheating is a real threat and it is best, as we did, to exchange the bottle for a few low alcohol chilled beers, especially if you have to drive in the afternoon.


The gradient of temperatures and rain patterns as we move south creates landscapes that pass from tropical to semi-tropical or arid.


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A few words of advice and caution to avoid inconvenience or much worse… accidents. It is best to avoid the rainy season, as part of the track may be impassable without a 4x4 car.  The drive should be done from Salta to Cafayate via Cachi, you should drive on the side of the road closest to the mountain as it is preferable to hit the wall rather than fall into a precipice.


If you see a lorry coming in the opposite direction stop your car, remove the keys and give them  to the lorry driver, it will not take much convincing that it is in his best interests to handle this difficult situation.


The most interesting domain of the region is Colomé in the valley of Calchaquí in the west part of the Salta province. It is probably the Salta governor who established the domain in 1854. Three pre-phylloxera vineyards of 4 hectares each are still being used. Today the vineyards belong to Donald and Ursula Hess, also owners of domains in California and in South Africa. Vineyards now cover 140 hectares and the domain can boast that they possess the highest vines in the world (3111 metres).  Grapes see at least 300 days of sunshine a year, but as often, the altitude acts as a thermal regulator and the temperature differences can be as high as 200C between day and night and between summer and winter. The vines only receive 100 mm of rain a year and they have to be irrigated by drip feed irrigation. The main varieties planted are: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Bonarda and Torrontes. The cuvées of Malbec are very fine, perhaps a little on the woody side for a French pallet, especially that the vintage tasted had been somewhat spoilt by poor wood coming from a top French cooper. Today the domain has a first class boutique hotel with fine dining based on homegrown organic products.  It also has an art gallery, as the Hess family is passionate about art.  



The domain of Etchart near Cafayate was created in 1850 and is part of the viticulture heritage of the region. Since 1996, it belongs to the huge conglomerate of Pernod-Ricard. The wines are well made, but a little too technological for my own liking. They, however, produce a fine Torrontes from old vines that is among the very best of the region.


The region is full of hotels ranging from very cheap to very expensive. If luxury is tempting you and you like fine dining, then there are two places that are a must. The La Merced del Alto hotel near Cachi managed by French people originating from Brittany and the Grace Hotel in Cafayate right in the middle of a vineyard and which has a smoking room with a good selection of cigars.  Be prepared to spend at least 200 Euros for the room excluding any extras.





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