These days, she spends a third of each year in Mendoza, helping Catena Zapata stake its claim as Argentina’s premier winery. Because she appears in magazine ads, and because she’s fiercely intelligent and uncompromisingly honest, Laura Catena has become the face of Argentinean wine. She also has an adventurous streak that balances the methodical thinking that drew her to medicine. When I asked about Salta, she barely hesitated.
So we loaded up an SUV and picked up Fernando Buscema, one of the Catena enologists. We drove through La Rioja, then Catamarca and its exotic rock formations and crimson hills. It was only a day’s drive to Cafayate, the heart of Salta’s viticultural area, but it felt like we were leaving a mechanized, industrious South America with visible ties to Europe, and entering the slower-paced land of the Andean altiplano, of coca leaf, native artifacts, and high-pitched Bolivian music.
We hit Cafayate, set in a bowl surrounded by grasshopper-green mountains, as night fell. Our hotel, Patios de Cafayate, was two stories of dark wood and stucco, built around a courtyard and filled with hundred-year-old furniture. We reassembled at midnight for a delicious meal too weighty for the hour, and drank a 12-year-old Catena Zapata Chardonnay that Laura had brought. “I like the idea of drinking this here,” she said. It was living history, connecting Argentinean wines of a previous era to a place that already reminded me of Mendoza back then.
We started visiting wineries the next morning. Finca Las Nubes dates only to 1997, but it looks like the set of an old western. Pushed against a steep, cactus-dotted hill, it consists of a few wooden buildings with barrel-tiled roofs. Owner and enologist José Luis Mounier worked 18 years at Bodegas Etchart, Salta’s largest producer, before planting grapes on a slope he’d cleared. He has Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the brutishly tannic Tannat, but his best wine is white, a floral but flinty Torrontés. It might seem strange that a white grape would thrive near the Tropic of Capricorn, but Salta—as I was to hear often—mitigates its latitude with altitude. Still, its grapes get very ripe, and sugar translates into alcohol. Somehow, Mounier manages to keep his Torrontés balanced and lithe, smelling of rose petals. “Best Torrontés I’ve had,” Laura said. I agreed.
Las Nubes was one of a rash of newer wineries. What had been a compact local industry of Etchart and four small companies has grown to encompass 22, including the cultishly popular San Pedro de Yacochuya. For that property, Arnaldo Etchart—who sold his namesake winery to the Pernod-Ricard conglomerate in 1996—has joined forces with Michel Rolland, of all people, to make an unabashedly rich, potent red wine. Yacochuya hardly felt like the branch office of a globe-trotting winemaker. A trim vineyard was surrounded by a rock wall rimmed by cacti, and the facility took about four minutes to tour. After that, we hiked up a hill to the Etchart family house and sat on a shaded patio with Cafayate before us. The landscape, which ran down a vine-covered hill and into a valley, seemed softer than Mendoza’s, almost ethereal, as if we could wave our hands and it would dissipate into the air.
After we’d tasted the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Yacochuyas, which were as dense as motor oil, Etchart emerged, moving slowly. A hero of the same Mondovino that had excoriated Rolland, he’s in his seventies now, with a mane of snowy hair. Laura, who has met most of the great wine personalities of the world, seemed awestruck at seeing one of the pioneers of her own country’s wine culture. “You know my father,” she said softly. He kissed her on both cheeks—a European gesture, but one that in this setting seemed fundamentally Argentine. Then Etchart disappeared into the house. He returned carrying CD’s of local music and portfolios of poetry. He handed the gifts to Laura and me with gracious words. For Buscema, the enologist, he had a stronger message, wisdom distilled from a career of wine making. “You must read poetry,” he exhorted as Buscema’s eyes widened. “Or your wines will taste like shit.”
What Cafayate is to Mendoza—wilder, less polished, difficult to access—Colomé is to Cafayate. It’s deep in the wilderness, three hours northwest over a path of mud and rocks barely wide enough for a vehicle. But we had to see it, we agreed. Four of its 96,000 acres have been under vine since the 1850’s. And after a recent rebirth, the estate has begun to produce compelling wines. It also has a nine-suite luxury hotel with high ceilings, vivid colors, and cacti in the courtyard.
The place had been in ruins when the Swiss businessman Donald Hess bought the land and everything on it in 2001. He camped out there with his wife, Ursula, until they’d made it not just inhabitable but unforgettable. Nearly three hours after leaving Cafayate, we bumped around a bend and saw it: a patch of green amid the alabaster hills. Hess, 73, was there to greet us, looking country-elegant in a sweater-vest and a tattersall shirt, keeping the wild at bay with the trappings of civility like a Joseph Conrad character.
At nearly 7,500 feet, Colomé sits almost as high as anywhere in the world growing wine grapes. The surroundings are desolate. But its Torrontés, weightier than Mounier’s, is brisk and flavorful, and its two dense Malbecs have the balance and solidity that will keep them improving for a decade. “My theory is, there’s enough wine in the world,” Hess told us over roast chicken and polenta. “So I have to make my own story. I have to go to where there’s nobody. Then, if I can make a good wine, I’ll have a good story.” He paused for a moment, as if to pare the businessman in him from the romantic. “And I love it here,” he said. “We put the lights out and see all the stars.”
The next day, Hess showed us the old vineyard, the state-of-the-art winery, a visitors’ center, and a huge museum he’d built to house the work of the American postmodern artist James Turrell. Though Hess has opened other winery museums in Napa and South Africa, it seems hard to imagine that many people will make the long, difficult journey to Colomé to see room after room of light installations. But I might be wrong. Hess had brought a similar spirit of zealous optimism to the winery and the hotel. I couldn’t quarrel with the success they’d had.
It turned out that Hess isn’t alone in the wilderness. Four miles away is another winery, Bodega Belén de Humanao. It was founded, then sold, by Néstor Ramírez—though Ramírez, a weathered but energetic 76 years old, still runs it. “I can’t bear to leave,” he said when we visited. Humanao has none of Colomé’s amenities. It’s just two rooms of tanks and barrels under a cane roof. But the wines, though dustier and more rustic, bear a fraternal resemblance to Hess’s own. They have a genuineness, a validity, that I admire.
Once I returned home, I knew, most of the Argentinean wine I’d drink would be from Mendoza. My favorites—the best of Achaval Ferrer; Vistalba’s Corte A—share a sense of refinement that only a temperate climate and a mature wine-making culture can produce. But Argentinean wine, I’d realized, is as rich and varied and strong-flavored as the country itself. The best of it is rooted not in export statistics or marketing plans but warm sun and hospitable soil, qualities that have attracted outsiders like Hess and me to places like Argentina since man began to travel. We’d come from distant continents to stand beside Ramírez and sip his Malbec. He was a local, a mile from home.