Cafayate is a wine-producing region in the north-west of Argentina. Located within the Calchaqui Valley, Cafayate is arguably the best-known wine region in Argentina outside of Mendoza, and enjoys an excellent reputation due to the quality of the Torrontes and Malbec that is grown here. Cafayate is one of the highest places in the world that is suitable for viticulture.
The small town of Cafayate is near the southern border of the Salta province, just north of San Juan. The Calchaqui Valley, a catch-all name for a series of valleys on the edge of the Andes mountains, surrounds Cafayate and has some of the most spectacular landscapes in Argentina, changing rapidly and dramatically from desert to mountains to sub-tropical forest.
Cafayate sits at 5600ft (1700m) above sea level, at a latitude of 26°S (which it shares with the Kalahari desert in Africa). This high altitude is what defines the terroir of the region, making it suitable for viticulture despite its close proximity to the equator. The altitude means the sunlight Cafayate receives is more intense than in lower-lying regions, causing the grapes to develop thicker skins as protection against the solar radiation.
The altitude also explains the cold nights, fuelled by westerly evening winds from the snow-capped Andes. Temperatures can be around 60F/15C colder than during the day, and it is this diurnal temperature variation that extends the growing season and leads to balance in the finished wines.
Soil types in Cafayate are varied, consisting mostly of free-draining sandy loam, with some more-pebbly pockets. These dry soils cause stress in the vines, leading them to produce less vegetation and fewer grapes, reducing the overall yield and contributing to the high levels of concentration in the resultant wines. Cafayate has a desert climate with low rainfall and humidity, and the vines need irrigation from the meltwater rivers in the area to keep them hydrated over the summer.
The terroir in Cafayate is particularly well suited to the Torrontes Riojana variety, which produces floral, crisp white wines with a surprising depth of flavour. Full-bodied, richly structured wines made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are also produced in Cafayate. Michel Rolland, a French winemaker more famous for his work in Bordeaux, has helped to promote the potential of Cafayate as a wine-growing area.