Cafayate is a wine-producing region in north-west of Argentina located within the Calchaqui Valley, and is arguably the best-known wine region in Argentina outside of Mendoza. It enjoys an excellent reputation due to the quality of the Torrontes and Malbec grown here and is one of the highest places in the world 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, the name for a series of valleys on the edge of the Andes 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 is 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 solar radiation.
The altitude also explains the cold nights, fueled 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 are mostly free-draining sandy loam, with some more-pebbly pockets. The 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 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, the French winemaker more famous for Bordeaux, has helped to promote the potential of Cafayate as a wine-growing area.