Salta, in the far north of Argentina, is home to some of the world's most extreme vineyard sites. Many sit at lower latitudes and higher altitudes than anywhere else on Earth. Interestingly, these two factors balance each other out; the cold temperatures associated with high altitude are mitigated by the high temperatures found at these latitudes. The combination creates an unexpectedly excellent climate for quality viticulture. Argentina's signature grape varieties of Torrontes and Malbec are Salta's top performers, producing bright, intensely flavoured wines.
As is the case in Catamarca (to the south) and Jujuy (to the northwest), Salta's vineyards are often located amid mountainous terrain – some reaching altitudes of 9840ft (3000m) above sea level. With latitudes as low as 24°S, their proximity to the Equator is similar to such places as Egypt, Mozambique, Alice Springs and Baja California.
Salta's mountainous landscape creates a rain shadow over the vineyards below, ensuring clear skies and low levels of precipitation. The convenient flipside is that the mountains also provide irrigation, sending a reliable supply of meltwater down from the snowy peaks. This mesoclimate benefits from a wide diurnal temperature variation, which allows the grapes to develop phenolic ripeness while retaining good acidity. Summer temperatures in Salta reach 100F (38C) in the day time, while dropping to as low as 55F (12C) at night.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Tannat are the most prominent red-wine varieties in Salta, while Chardonnay and Torrontes account for the region's most respected white wines. The region has a similar alluvial soil profile (sandy topsoil over a clay base) to Mendoza, 500 miles (800km) to the south, which explains why these varieties do so well in both regions.
Salta's key wine-growing areas are Cafayate and the world-topping vineyards of Molinos. Cafayate in particular is quickly gaining an international reputation for the high quality of the wines produced there, as much as for the quirks of its terroir.