Sebastián Zuccardi told us his grandfather had an obsession with the desert when he first planted grape vines near the city of Mendoza. The year was 1963 and at the time he had no expertise growing grapes and no interest in making wine. He was the owner of a building company who was keen to demonstrate an efficient irrigation system. That demonstration succeeded and in the process sparked his love of cultivating vines. “Lucky for me”, quipped Sebastián, the third generation of his family to manage the winery.
Thus was Sebastián’s introduction during a recent San Francisco Wine School program titled “A Comparative Tasting of Terroirs of the Uco Valley Featuring Zuccardi Valle de Uco”. The informative discussion that followed outlined the valley’s complex soils and how elevation, proximity to the Andes and the mountains themselves influence terroir in the Uco Valley. Best of all, we tasted a series of wines that illustrated the points Sebastián made in his presentation. As a member of the media I paid a discounted price to attend and received wine samples.
Family Winemaking in the Uco Valley
Sebastián’s father, José, had no interest in becoming an engineer or joining the building company his father established. He was interested in wine and took responsibility for growing the Zuccardi winery his father built in Maipú only a few years after planting those first vines.
Along with his interest in growing grapes and making wine, Sebastián seems to have inherited his grandfather’s obsession with the desert. He pushed his father to look beyond Maipú to the elevation of the Uco Valley. As Zuccardi’s head viticulturist, Sebastián has led the family’s exploration of the region’s complex terroir.
Familia Zuccardi remains family owned and managed with brands that include Bodega Santa Julia, Malamado and Zuelo olive oil in addition to Zuccardi Valle de Uco.
The Andes and Its Influences
The Andes Mountains shape every aspect of winemaking in the Uco Valley and Sebastián refers to the wines they make as mountain wines. The mountains’ tremendous height blocks all influence from the Pacific Ocean making the region a high desert. Snow melt and wells are the only significant source of water in the region and irrigation is necessary in spring and summer.
Vineyards are located at the foot of the mountains, at roughly between 2800 and 5600 feet above sea level. Cultivation at higher elevations is impractical due to a lack of water. Given a similar elevation, sites closest to the mountains will be the coolest; these are the locations that most interest Sebastián. The combination of low humidity and high elevation makes the sun very intense further influencing grape development.
The soils in the Uco Valley are comprised of alluvial fans, 36 in all, that have been washed down from the Andes. The alluvial soils are filled with round stones that become smooth as they tumble down from the mountain. These round stones are most numerous at higher elevations (at the beginning of alluvial fans) and become smaller in size and less numerous as the distance from the mountain increases.
The Andes themselves are not homogenous. Part of the mountains were under the ocean in their ancient history and have a calcareous component, other parts are largely granitic. As a result, soils in the Uco Valley contain both components. This unique combination is one of the things that makes the soils so interesting to Sebastián.
The diversity of the Uco Valley is just beginning to be documented and classified. Only a few IGs (Indicaciones Geográficas) have been formalized in the Uco Valley, which lies about an hours’ drive southwest of Mendoza city. The map above is a work-in-progress and will change in the coming years as areas within the Uco Valley are better defined and understood.
A Taste of Place
Chardonnay: San Pablo versus Gualtallary
The vineyards in San Pablo and in Gualtallary are located at the same elevation, but San Pablo is closer to the Andes. Because of the cooler climate, harvest in San Pablo is 20 to 25 days later than in Gualtallary. Soils in both locations are quite rocky, but there is a significant calcareous component in Gualtallary. Fossils are found in the San Pablo vineyard and the Gualtallary vineyard is very close to wild vegetation, hence the names of each wine.
Vinification was similar for both wines: fermentation with natural yeasts in a combination of concrete vessels and used 500L barrels. The concrete vessels are made using sand and stone from the local environment. Neither wine went through malolactic fermentation. Sebastián prefers the flavors of naturally balanced acidity provided by the sites.
2021 Zuccardi Chardonnay “Fosil”, San Pablo, Uco Valley — pale yellow with clean, citrusy flavors and juicy acidity. Flavors are a bit austere, but not simple. This wine is full of energy and tension.
2021 Zuccardi Chardonnay “Botanico”, Gualtallary — pale yellow with stony aromas and flavors along with riper citrus flavors. The wine is a bit rounder and more flavorful with plenty of acidity.
The “Fossil” definitely tasted like a cooler-climate Chardonnay than the “Botanico”, which had riper flavors. Both wine were delicious and well balanced.
Malbec: Alluvial Soils
Even though all three vineyard sites are planted in alluvial soils, the alluvial soils are not all the same. And the elevations are different, as are the distances from the mountains. All three wines are grown in what Sebastián considers the most interesting sites in those areas.
In order to make wines that, “speak about the place they are grown”, grapes are not allowed to over-ripen, wines are not over-extracted in the winery and vinification and aging take place entirely in concrete tanks.
2018 Zuccardi “Aluvional Los Chacayes” Malbec, Uco Valley — fruit forward aromas and flavors include blueberries and blackberries with bright acidity and smooth tannins.
- 3600’ elevation
- Deep soil with smaller stones due to its increased distance from the mountains. No calcareous component in the soil.
2018 Zuccardi “Aluvional Paraje Altamira” Malbec, Uco Valley — aromas and flavors include red berries along with blackberries and blueberries, bright acidity and tannins that are more drying.
- 3400’ elevation
- Soil with large stones due to close proximity to the mountains and at the beginning of an alluvial fan with a significant calcareous component.
2018 Zuccardi “Aluvional Guatallary” Malbec, Uco Valley — generous blackberry and blueberry flavors with an earthy component. Tannins are even more drying and a bit grippy.
- 4000’ elevation
- Significant calcareous component in the soils with small stones, due to location further down the alluvial fan, with significant compaction. This combination of small stones, compaction and calcareous component is called caliche.
The flavor profile of each wine was unique, but all have very fresh acidity. It was the tannins structure and feel on the palate that most distinguished these wines from each other for me. Lovely wines, all.
Malbec: A Vertical of Finca Piedra Infinita
This vertical tasting is a tasting of a very specific and special place. Finca Piedra Infinita is a 45-hectare parcel in Paraje Altamira. The vineyard’s name, Piedra Infinita, means infinite stones. When Sebastián originally walked the land he was convinced the family should buy the property. His father asked him how many truckloads of stones would have to be removed to plant a vineyard. Sebastián estimated 300; the actual number exceed 1000, hence the name. The silver lining: all those stones were put to good use building the winery in Altamira.
Paraje Altamira is located at the beginning of an alluvial fan of the Tunuyán River and the soil is very diverse. It was a 10-year project to map the property and resulted in 40 distinct parcels. Some soils are extremely shallow with stones very close to the surface. These parcels have less water-holding capacity and ripen some 20 days earlier than parcels with deeper soils.
Only the shallowest soils, with the most calcareous content, are included in the Finca Piedra Infinita bottling. Each parcel is vinified separately before blending.
Only the 2017 was aged partially (~30%) in used oak barrels. The 2018 and 2019 were made and aged entirely in concrete, allowing the wines to speak clearly of where they were grown. The wines are blended just before the next harvest and sit in concrete until they are bottled after harvest. 2017 was the warmest vintage and 2019 the coolest with 2018 in the middle.
Work in the vineyard is also transparent. Due to the dry environment disease pressure is low, so there is no need to use pesticides. Fertilizers are organic and no herbicides are used in the vineyards.
2017 Zuccardi “Finca Piedra Infinita” Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley — generous dark berry fruit flavors with smooth tannins and a very long finish.
2018 Zuccardi “Finca Piedra Infinita” Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley — ripe blueberry aromas lead to flavors that include blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Tannins are drying and well integrated with the flavors.
2019 Zuccardi “Finca Piedra Infinita” Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley — aromas of berries and earth lead to flavors of blackberries with a brambly component and earthy notes in the backgrounds. Tannins are very drying.
These are beautiful wines that reflect the individual vintage and time in the bottle. They are a new version of Malbec, one that is fresh, complex and textured.
You can hear Sebastián talk about the soils of the Uco Valley in this interview by Amanda Barnes on her excellent website South America Wine Guide.
This is as delicious a group of wines as I’ve tasted. It is such a pleasure to taste such complex and balanced wines. I am not the only one smitten by these wines. Critics have given their wines very high praise and Zuccardi Valle de Uco was just recently named New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Look for these wines.
Many thanks to Sebastián Zuccardi for sharing your family’s history and your enthusiasm for growing and making wine in Valle de Uco. Thanks also to San Francisco Wine School for the opportunity to learn about and taste these wines.
Sounds like a great remote experience Nancy. I’m loving you in depth post about the Uco Valley’s terroir!