For years, Les Somerville had been longing to get to Argentina to discover the unique wine region of Salta. Earlier this year, the opportunity presented itself, and as Les chronicles below, he was as impressed with the place as his anticipation had grown.
After the 30-hour journey to get to Salta from London – planes, trains, more planes, minibus, more planes, and then the three-hour drive – you might be forgiven in thinking we would be have been a little jaded. This was not the case and, as we’d soon discover, the travel would be totally worth it.
It might’ve been lengthy, but the journey up to Salta proved to be a fantastic experience. The landscape is so expressive, starting with very lush green hillsides, and as you make your way through you see the soil change colour and end up in a very baron, almost Star Wars desert-like environment. The more baron it gets, the more you start to notice the standing guards that dot the hillsides. These are massive cactus plants that can survive in the more rugged landscape. They are protected by law, so much so that the routes of the vines when we made it to El Esteco work their way round them as they have a sacred energy. Looking uncannily like people in the evening light it’s quite a site to behold.
Once fed and rested – wont bore you with the amazing food and wine just yet – we met El Esteco’s viticulturist, Francisco Tellechea. Obviously, my first question was: “What are the varieties you grow here”. To which Francisco responded something I was not expecting to hear: parcels of Marsanne and Roussanne, but that will be a future project following his time working in the Languedoc. Next, he took us to the top of the tower at the winery, where we were given a breakdown of what they do, how they work with the environment, the history behind the winery, plus their connection with the farmers of the valley.
It’s such an interesting environment; huge hillsides barricading the valley on both sides, and it is these hillsides that ultimately allow the viticulture to work. There is cloud cover over both mountain ranges, which means that in the morning it takes until around 9/10am for the sun to break through into the valley. This allows the grapes and vines to have cold nights before the sun starts to build up the heat. By the time it hits 3pm, the sun has moved from south to north, and starts to hit the cloud cover on the Quilmes Mountains. This is the hottest part of the day and a lot of work has gone into the orientation of the vine rows to maximise heat, photosynthesis, and canopy management.
Looking at some of the vineyards and seeing 47-year-old Torrontes vines was amazing; they were like individual people, each with a story to tell and such character. As you can imagine, irrigation is key to the vineyards, especially on the valley floor as it’s so exposed. They have two main methods for this – drip irrigation and flood irrigation. The water is collected way up in the hills from rain that comes down over the Andres: there are over a 100-year-old waterways built by hand that still bring the water down the valley in channels that can be dammed depending on where they need to have it go. Small reservoirs in the valley floor are then used to irrigate the vines.
The flood irrigation which we watched is used from August through to February, every three weeks the furrowed channels between the vines are flooded with water and this gradually permeates into the soil and the vines. Only 50% of the water will be used, as the rest is swallowed up by evaporation back up into the atmosphere for it to start its journey all over again. The drip irrigation along the rows of vines – about 12 inches up – only has 10% evaporation, so is a far better system.
One of the points Francesco made particularly clear was how they need to makes the most of the environment and use everything to its maximum potential. The grape must after harvest is mixed with goat manure from the goats that roam the mountain ranges. This is mainly used on new plantings to build up nutrients in the soil. For the pergola process they use in some of the vineyards it can be four years before the first harvest so they have time to build up the soil.
The other thing that impressed me was the feeling of community within the pickers, groups of 25 with one managing the work. When they’re pruning back through the vintage there is a lot of stems and vine arms cut back to develop the structure they want. After the pickers shift has finished, a tractor will drive through the vineyard and the team loads up a trailer and this then will drop the wood back off at their houses, as most houses have wood-fired boilers.
All this, combined with the fact there are on average five earthquakes a day, makes it such a fascinating place to visit. Add food, company, and ultimately wines into the equation, and it truly opens your eyes to the breadth of knowledge, experience, and forward thinking that this winery has in spades.