When researching our visit to Salta, Argentina, we learned about that region's wine area - Cafayate. It is located 200 km south of the city of Salta - about a 4 hour bus ride away.
We spent three days in Cafayate, and another post on our "Americas" blog is dedicated to reviews on the town, but I wanted to make a specific post with a review of the wineries we visited and the wines we tasted.
The most interesting and convenient factor is that many winemakers have their bodega (a.k.a. cellar door, wine shop, winery, etc.) located near the central part of town. They grow their grapes in vineyards outside of town, but truck in the harvest to make and age the wine in town. This is a unique but nice change from typical wine regions where the cellar door is located on the vineyard property. It makes doing 3+ tastings a day very easy since you can walk between them. It also makes it convenient to visit Cafayate without a rental car.
Cafayate is Argentina's second largest wine region, but is typically overshadowed internationally, and even domestically, by Mendoza. The star grape of Cafayate is the torrontes, a white grape with a range of tastes. Cheaper versions resemble a cheap pinot grigio, but higher quality torrontes tastes like a good sauvignon blanc, although less citrusy. The region is not known for vino tinto, which is what we prefer. Malbec doesn't do very well there, but tannat and bonarda do. Everything from syrah to cabernat sauvignon to merlot grow there, but tannat stands out. Interestingly, the wines have a very high alcohol content (most >14%) due to the hotter, drier conditions that produce more sugars in the grape.
We loved our experience in Cafayate and highly recommend it. Below you'll find a review of the wineries we visited.
Nanni - This is the first winemaker we visited. They are one of the older brands and make organic wines. The premises includes a nice secluded courtyard and a tasting room. They have a restaurant with great online reviews but didn't have the chance to eat there. We bought a tannat reserva and reserve blend. Tannat is a grape that is originally European, but has taken well to certain regions of South America. It is similar to malbec or syrah in body and taste. The tannat was quite good, but Nanni's malbec was terrible and too acidic. The bodega staff was nice, and this is an overall decent place just a few blocks from the center of town. - RECOMMENDED
El Transito - This bodega is down the street from Nanni, and is modern and luxiurious in its appearance. They offer a free tasting, which is rare, but only two wines are open at a time. This is a frequent occurence in Cafayate. You generally aren't able to sample their full range of wines, only what they "have open" that day. They had a very mediocre Malbec, and an unremarkable blend of their marquee label. It was a nice building and atmosphere but we were totally unimpressed by wine. (We were told they open different wines on different days, so we returned the next day to find the same two wines for tasting. We turned around and walked out.) - NOT RECOMMENDED
Salvador Figueroa - This bodega had a great oak aged malbec, which we bought. The other "open" wine was an unoaked malbec, which was pretty mediocre. It's a very small bodega, and our tasting was hosted by winemaker/janitor, after he finished sweeping the floors. The wine was recommended by our waiter at Restaurant Terruno the previous night, and we're glad we visited. They have super-small production and is a wine you won't find outside of that region. - RECOMMENDED
Vasija Secreto (a.k.a. La Banda) - This bodega is a short walk outside of town. The tasting fee was waived because we bought wine. We purchased a $7 bottle of torrontes reserva, which was the best we had tasted up to that point. It is a nice estate with a well-ranked restaurant, but we visited late in the day between tasting and dinner hours. The tasting staff was friendly and patient. - RECOMMENDED
Jose Mournier (a.k.a. Finca Las Nubes) - This winery was perhaps the most spectaular setting for a vineyard. The name means Estate of the Clouds, and it is fitting for its location nestled among the mountains. It's reached by walking 4 km (1 hour 15 min) west of town. Expensive tasting, but they offered three wines - torrontes, rosado, and a malbec. They buy most of their grapes from other growers because their finca (estate) is small. We enjoyed a very good torrontes for lunch with a nice cheese/meat/olive plate (picada). We didn't care for the strong acidic rosado of malbec/cab sav. We bought a bottle of their marquee label malbec/cab blend, which is all grown on small estate. The wine is decent, but the visit is worth it alone. Simply stunning, and our favorite overall experience. - RECOMMENDED
El Porvenir - Hands-down the best wine we tasted in Cafayate. It was also the most expensive tasting at 50 pesos (about $5.75) per person, but we got to sample four wines, including an incredible dessert torrontes. The bodega is located centrally in town and is organized around a nice hidden courtyard. The winery tour was thorough and informative, although we didn't find out until the end of the tasting that the woman spoke very good English. I struggled the whole time to translate what she was saying. We bought two bottles of a fantastic cheap cab franc blend and a bottle of malbec rosado to enjoy that day for lunch. It is not a huge production winery, but they do export to Miami through Graziano Imports, so you can find where they sell it in Florida. It's not the best wine in the world, but it is very good quality, the best in Cafayate, and one of the few that exports to the States. - RECOMMENDED
Domingo Hermanos - This was the worst bodega we visited. They are probably the largest volume producer of locally-consumed wine (for instance, they make jugged wine). The production facility is huge and operating at all hours of the day. A highlight was that we got to watch the grape crushing and bottling processes. We tasted two reds and a white and didn't care for any of them. Even their upper brand labels were poor quality. - NOT RECOMMENDED