These days, the town of Cafayate in northwest Argentina is a wine destination, with luxury hotels, wine resorts and restaurants. But back in 1999, the first time I visited, it was a very sleepy place that didn’t attract many outsiders. I had arrived by bus, leaving Mendoza’s irrigated greenery to travel hours through near-desert, winding north along Ruta 38. Every once in a while, the bus would slow to a stop, and someone would get off and head into stony, barren wilderness, to some unseen home. As we climbed in altitude, the sun set, and we pulled into Salta after dark. So, it was startling, the next morning, to see Cafayate by day: Surveying the cactus-studded landscape from the front seat of a four-wheel-drive pickup revealed reddish cliffs streaked with purples, blues, greens and oranges, colors left by mineral reactions within the rock, everything glowing with the strength of the sunlight at 5,500 feet. It was hard to imagine someone deciding to make wine here, in a place that looked a bit like Mars. At the same time, it seemed crazy not to, if it were possible to make wine in such a dramatic place.
French oenologist Michel Rolland told me at the time that he’d essentially had the same thoughts. He’d originally visited Cafayate with his friend, Argentine vintner Arnaldo Etchart, who had offered him the chance to work with a plot of old-vine malbec growing at 6,700 feet in altitude. Once he saw the vineyard, Rolland said, he didn’t want to leave. That vineyard became the basis for a partnership they called Yacochuya (“clear water” in the Quechua language).
A Malbec From Somewhere Wild
Back then, Yacochuya had yet to produce wines commercially, and by the time some bottles made it to the US, I’d passed the baton of reviewing Argentine wines to Patricio Tapia. I hadn’t thought of Yacochuya in a long time, in fact, until I started tasting Argentine wine for Wine & Spirits again this year, and came across a certain malbec in our tasting of Salteñean reds. There was something about that wine that stood out from the others—a restraint that countered the typical sun-filled intensity of the region’s malbec: a cool earthiness that reminded me of that drive through Cafayate’s countryside, of passing through small patches of forest that cropped up wherever there was water, little respites from the sun. Even though we were tasting the wines blind, this bottle put me in mind of that sleepy little town, with its old-world, off-the-path feel, as well as its dusty nobility. The wine was not trying to be a Mendozan malbec; it came from someplace wilder and rougher, with a dignified reserve.
The wine was, in fact, San Pedro de Yacochuya, a malbec blended with a little cabernet sauvignon. Mellowed in barrel and bottle, this “second” wine of Yacochuya estate was, itself, pretty grand, its cherry flavors heady with notes of tobacco, caramel, coffee and bay leaves, with enough acidity and alcohol to give it drive and energy. Tasting it made me want a platter of empanadas—beef, salty with black olives and rich with hard-boiled egg—and a trip back to Salta. Though I might take an airplane this time.
Every week, our editors highlight a wine that intrigued them in our blind panel tastings, expanding on their tasting note in this space. These are entirely editorial choices; there are no paid placements. Subscribers can also access the original tasting note by searching here.
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