Features Uco Valley: Winemaking on the Edge

Uco Valley: Winemaking on the Edge

The high Andes provide a dramatic backdrop for the vineyards of the Uco Valley.
© Michelle Williams | The high Andes provide a dramatic backdrop for the vineyards of the Uco Valley.
Thirty years ago, winemakers looked beyond Mendoza; today Michelle Williams finds them pushing the limits of altitude and ripeness.
By Wine-Searcher staff | Posted Tuesday, 06-Oct-2020

November in Argentina's Uco Valley is hot – temperatures hover around 90F; 3500 feet above sea level, at the base of the Andes Mountains, the relentless sun applies its finishing touches on the grapes phenolic and sugar ripeness prior to harvest. Coupled with infinitesimal rainfall, less than 10 inches annually, the valley is a mountain desert.

Conversely, ascending two-thousand feet reveals another world.

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The air becomes crisp and cool as temperatures drop, requiring a sweater for comfort. Sunlight filters onto vineyards through a lush forest – home to 80-year-old American Sequoia trees – unexpected in the Andes. Even more unpredictable – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc growing on small, compact vines close to the ground at 5643 feet above sea level. Grape clusters are small and production is low, yet the wines produced are refined, elegant, with high acidity and balance in an Old-World style. "It's a microclimate within a microclimate – at the edge of ripeness," observes José "Pepe" Galante, chief winemaker of Bodegas Salentein.

Uco Valley is a land of extremes – not for the viticultural faint of heart. Best described as "harsh", conditions here are defined by the Andes Mountains. But here the old adage rings true, struggling vines produce better wines.

"We like to say that we make mountain wines," shares Sebastián Zuccardi, third-generation owner of Familia Zuccardi. "Because it is the Andes that gives our wines identity since the climate, soil, landscape, history, and culture of this region come from the mountains."

Intrepid pioneers

Some 30 years ago, a handful of winemakers independently dared to look beyond Mendoza to an untamed land without roads, electricity, and irrigation; undaunted by these obstacles, they were determined to fulfill a viticultural destiny in unity with the mountains to create the best wines of Argentina.

When Nicolás Catena Zapata launched Bodegas Catena Zapata in 1992, he set a new standard for Argentine wines, but, knowing the mountains held the secret to even greater wine, he wanted more. Undeterred by naysayers, he sought Mendoza's coolest region to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Malbec. In 1993, Gualtallary became home to highest elevation vineyard of the region – Adrianna Vineyard.

Simultaneously, third-generation French winemaker, Jean Bousquet, fell in love with the area during a vacation. Looking upon the virgin land he recognized viticultural potential for unity between high acidity and cool climate, with sun proximity providing greater potential for balanced, fruit-forward wines. Purchasing 1000 acres of desolate land in 1997, he dug a 495-foot well, planted vines, and released the first vintage of Domaine Bousquet wine in 2005.

Equally enticed, Dutch entrepreneur Mijndert Pon planted hundreds of acres of vines between 1996-99 to create Bodegas Salentein, comprising a stunning gravity-fed winery, almost 2000 acres of vines, and a top-notch winemaking team, led by winemaker Galante.

"Winemaking in a high-altitude desert is difficult," shares Galante. "We've had to develop our own research; for example, Sauvignon Blanc is sensitive to the sun, so our agronomist made baskets out of the vine's leaves so the grapes can grow protected inside."

Galante believes Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Petit Verdot provide a vision to future possibilities, resulting in a need to better understand the region's terroir.

River deep, mountain high

Providing more than elevation, the Andes gifts a mosaic of soils created by glaciers and rivers pushing alluvial deposits down the mountains over millennia. "Each climatic event makes a finger print in the profile of the soil," Diego Morales, vineyard consultant for Bodegas Salentein, says.

Traditionally, Argentine appellations, known as Geographical Indications (GI), have followed political boundaries. As such, the three main GIs in the Uco Valley are Tunuyán, Tupungato, and San Carlos. However, studies of these large appellations sift apart distinctions, revealing unique sub-appellations.

"I believe the future of Argentina lies in the unique identities of the regions," Zuccardi says. "We have to put all our energy into developing, learning and communicating about our regions."

Gualtallary, located within the Tupungato GI, is home to the highest elevation vineyards in the region. Rocky, sandy soil rich in calcium carbonate imparts a chalky freshness into the wines. Embracing the elegance this area gives to wine, Domaine Bousquet produces 300,000 cases of organic wines from the region.

San Pablo offers a more heavily wooded environment, meaning the grapes ripen later.
© Michelle Williams | San Pablo offers a more heavily wooded environment, meaning the grapes ripen later.

"The wines of Gualtallary typically have a wild character, with fresh aromas of black fruit and herbs such as thyme," explains Zuccardi. "On the palate they are vertical, with a remarkable texture in the tannins, which gives them great structure and power."

Manuel González, chief winemaker of Bodega Andeluna agrees. "Everything related to the mountains is in the glass, herbs, mineral expression, and floral notes."

Cabernet Franc is the secret weapon. "The potential power of Cabernet Franc illustrated through our terroir is best expressed here, according to Gonzalo Fernandez Gregorat, winemaker of Rutini Wines, who has been producing Cabernet Franc in the region for 20 years. Still believing Malbec is the best vehicle for expressing the Uco Valley terroir, Zuccardi acknowledges Cabernet Franc has shown great adaptation to this region, proving to be a "great partner" for Malbec.

The forest oasis

San Pablo, located within Tunuyán, awarded GI status in the fall of 2019, creates wines with tension. Soil diversity results from deposits carried over the mountains by rivers and creeks a millennia ago. Zuccardi believes the conditions translate into fresh, elegant wines with subtle mouth-feel, high acidity, and finesse, "more vertical than broad on the palate".

Because of its mountain proximity, this region is the coolest, wettest, and last to ripen fruit; dry-farming is even possible in some vineyards, such as Salentein's Las Jabalíes – planted with Pinot Noir – Los Nogales (Sauvignon Blanc), and Las Sequoias (Chardonnay) – three vineyards with unique microclimates within a lush forest 5640 feet above sea level.

Zuccardi’s Las Cuchillas vineyard rests within the alluvial fan of the Las Tunas River, just 2000 feet shy of the ridge of the Andes Mountains. Like Salentein, Zuccardi finds this an ideal location for wines with high salinity, minerality, and acidity – especially with white grapes. Along with Chardonnay, Zuccardi grows Verdejo, Albari?o, and Riesling here. "For many years Argentina was not considered a great producer of whites," he explains. "But in recent years we found that in places near the mountain there are exceptional conditions for white varieties."

Land of extremes

Bordeaux wine consultant Fran?ois Lurton pioneered Los Chacayas – awarded GI status in 2018 – with his winery Bodegas Piedra Negra in the mid '90s, likening the poor, gravelly soil to Pessac-Léognan. Today, 12 of the region's 30 producers have formed an association with an eye toward enforcing quality. "I want to make sure all wines labeled Los Chacayas are high quality," Piedra Negra winemaker Thibault Lepoutre says.

Located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, within the Arroyo Grande alluvial fan, the metamorphic rock and ancient granite filled with quartz soils prove ideal for vines. These non-fertile soils coupled with low rainfall equal low disease pressures – perfect for organic viticulture.

This region is alive with experimentation. A nursery mistake resulted in Lurton planting Pinot Gris instead of Chardonnay. Piedra Negra vints the grape in five styles, including sparkling, skin fermented, and reserve – along with a Friulano and Viognier blend. "I think Friulano and Semillon are the future white grapes of Argentina," Lepoutre says. Other unexpected grapes include Gewürztraminer, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Grenache.

Located within the larger San Carlos GI, Paraje Altamira became a GI in 2013, expanding in 2016, based on its terroir. Formed by the alluvial fan of the Tunuyán River, the granite stony soil is rich in calcium carbonate and limestone, imparting a chalky texture and firm structure into the wines. Reminiscent of Burgundy, the tapestry of soil varies considerably within a single vineyard.

This is the region for bold, mineral-driven Malbec, delivering notes of ripe black and blue fruit, herbs, and red flowers. "The most interesting feature of Altamira is a particular texture that appears in the mouth and generates juiciness, saltiness and that slightly rough chalk sensation" Zuccardi says.

Anne Bouschet, second-generation owner of Domaine Bouschet, believes life experiences are embodied in winemaking. In this dynamic region, millions of years of geological events are also personified in the wine. What other region produces bold, yet elegant Malbec and cool-climate Chardonnay in a Burgundian style?

Uco Valley winemaker's fearless pursuit of embracing extremes results in the best wines of Argentina. By harnessing the power of the Andes, each wine provides a glimpse of viticulture at the edge of ripeness.

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