If you plan to visit Argentina and you’re into drinking wine, you’ll inevitably be asked, “Are you going to Mendoza?” And why wouldn’t you go to Mendoza? The region—set in Argentina’s midwest, within striking distance of the Andes—produces some of the world’s best wines, most especially bold, hardy malbecs. But if you want to set down a path toward lesser-known terroir, head to the country’s northwest Salta region instead. Here, the atmospheric Andean mountain town of Cafayate cradles high-elevation vineyards that are turning out incredible malbecs and torrontés, and the main square welcomes visitors much as it has since the town was first founded as a mission back in 1840.
Accessing Cafayate requires a flight into the city of Salta (via Buenos Aires or Mendoza). From there, it’s a three-hour scenic drive further south through mountainous terrain that ensures only the most intrepid oenophiles are rewarded with the bounty of one of the world’s highest-altitude wine regions. Here’s where to go, eat, and stay, once you’ve made it.
What to Do
Before arriving in Cafayate, you’ll travel through some spectacular scenery: winding roads that traverse striated mountains, alongside vast swaths of verdant vegetation, like sagebrush and cacti. Driving south from Salta, stop midway at the village of La Viña’s Posta de Las Cabras (or, “goat post”), a small restaurant/marketplace where you can fuel up on coffee, fresh juice, wine, pastries, empanadas, alfajores, grilled meats, and goat cheese sourced from the on-site herd. From there, it’s a higher ascent into the mountains, marked by crisp air and nature sites like El Anfiteatro, a 60,000-year-old natural amphitheater in the Reserva Natural Quebrada de Las Conchas, about 30 minutes outside of Cafayate. Soak up the beauty of this natural rock formation with its outstanding acoustics (if you’re lucky, you might catch an impromptu concert from a local musician).
Soon you’ll reach Cafayate, sitting at approximately 5,500 feet above sea level in Argentina’s Calchaquí Valley. A quaint colonial town, anchored on a central public square, it was founded in the mid-19th century as a mission. For more than a century now, it’s beckoned winemakers to one of the highest grape-growing regions in the world, with certain areas topping out at around 10,200 feet. It’s this proximity to the sun, wind, and other natural elements that produces richer flavors and deeper colors in the grapes cultivated here, including cabernet sauvignon, tannat, bonarda, syrah, and some chardonnay. Today’s vineyards–numbering fewer than 20 in all—predominantly grow hearty, robust, and fruit-forward malbec, as well as torrontés, which produces fragrant, elegant white wines with lovely, crisp fruit.
The history-rich town is the perfect base for tasting, while the wide-open expanses of the valley are ideal for horseback riding and golfing. Shoppers will appreciate the artisanal finds while browsing the stalls of local crafts, jewelry, and art at Mercado Artesanal on the main square. For education about the wine region, the Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Vine and Wine) offers a multimedia-driven exhibit on area winegrowing and winemaking history and traditions. (Tip: Even the on-site café features wine tastings.)
Most of Cafayate’s winery options are set within walking distance or a very short drive, taxi, or even bike ride from the town center. (Note: Most allow walk-in tastings, but some require reservations, so be sure to check their respective websites ahead of time.) Closer to the town square, you can stroll to Bodega Nanni, Bodega Domingo Hermanos, Bodega Tierra Colorada, and El Porvenir de Cafayate for vineyard and cellar tours, as well as tastings of elegant local wines like malbec, tannat, and torrontés. Under a 10-minute drive north of town, Burbujas de Altura, meanwhile, serves sparkling wine, made with 100 percent torrontés. Or drive about 10 minutes south of Cafayate to visit Bodegas Etchart, which dates back to 1850 and pours award-winning wines in a gated-off ranch setting.
Where to Eat
A 15-minute drive into the hills leads to the modern Piattelli Vineyards, where you can sit on the gorgeous open-air terrace overlooking the vineyards to taste through a variety of wines, including torrontés, chardonnay, malbec, and a rosé of malbec, while also indulging in traditional Argentinian lunch fare: empanadas, grilled meats with chimichurri, and humitas, or corn cakes with goat cheese and olive oil. Or just over a mile from the town center at Bodega El Esteco, founded in 1892, taste a range of signature local varietals at the transporting colonial-era property, set behind grand iron gates. Tack on a meal at the on-site restaurant La Rosa, where they sometimes grill whole goats and use fresh vegetables and herbs from their garden.
In town, hit Bad Brothers Wine Experience, a “restobar” where the owners produce their own wine under the Sunal and Bad Brothers labels. Enjoy the outdoor terrace while grazing over a variety of small plates, like baked macaroni and cheese with truffle oil, beef empanadas, or bandiola, an Argentinean pork shoulder sandwich. For something more casual, La Casa de Las Empanadas is all about—what else?—empanadas, but some of the best you’ll have. Looking for traditional Argentinean grilled meats? Parrillada El Gallito offers a no-frills grill to get your fill. And be sure to hit one of the heladerias (ice cream parlors) on the square for another local favorite: wine-flavored ice cream and sorbet.
Where to Stay
Upscale and antique-laden, the 32-room Patios de Cafayate Wine Hotel—set next to a winery a mile outside of town—delivers wine-fueled R&R, whether you’re sipping vino poolside or indulging in the complimentary sparkling wine served each afternoon. For something more modern and expansive, the luxury Grace Cafayate resort consists of a hotel with 12 rooms, as well as 20 private villas, which look over surrounding vineyards. On the grounds, you can visit the spa, play a round of golf, or ride horses through the valley setting, overlooking the Andes.
While there’s effort involved to get to Cafayate, it’s more than worth it to discover this under-the-radar wine region, far ahead of the blast of tourist buses that may one day follow.