Pioneers first spotted its potential 20 years ago, but now the Uco Valley is really starting to deliver. Tim Atkin MW takes a trip to the region that many think is making the best wine in Argentina
Buenos Aires may be the capital of Argentina, but the hub of its wine business lies around 650 miles to the west in Mendoza. Dominated to spectacular effect by the Andes, this bustling provincial city owes its existence to the majestic mountain range. Without snow melt for irrigation water, there would be no wine industry, or agriculture, in these near-desert conditions. And without the wine industry, Mendoza would be a dusty backwater.
Like Bordeaux, another one of the eight so-called ‘great wine capitals of the world’, Mendoza’s main focus is on vino. The first thing you see when you walk out of the airport, right there on the doorstep of the terminal, is a vineyard, just as it is at Mérignac in the Gironde. Ourwine, it seems to be telling you, is what defines us.
A new, promised land
The first time I went to Mendoza, in 1993, local winemakers were just beginning to talk about a new – or rather rediscovered – region an hour’s drive to the southwest, in the foothills of the Andes. The focus was still very much on traditional areas close to the city, such as Luján de Cuyo and the sun-baked flatlands of East Mendoza, but the Uco Valley was seen, even then, as a place of great potential.
There have been vineyards here since at least the 1920s, planted by intrepid Italian and Spanish immigrants whose old vines are much prized today, but the Uco Valley was considered too far from the consumers and production facilities of Mendoza to be truly viable. Traditionally, Uco Valley grapes were used to add colour and acidity to those from warmer areas, but rarely featured on labels – or in consumers’ minds – in their own right.
When the Argentine government offered an incentive in the early 1970s to plant in hotter east Mendoza, prompting a boom in high-yielding, poor-quality Criolla, the more isolated Uco Valley, where flood irrigation was impossible because of topography, went into decline. By the mid-1990s, when the modern boom began, the area under vine had dropped from 18,000ha at its high point to 6,000ha, as growers pulled out Malbec and planted tomatoes instead. Within a decade, 80% of the vines in La Consulta had disappeared.
Fast-forward 20 years and ‘Uco Valley wine country’ is being talked about as the new Napa Valley (in terms of tourist appeal rather than wines), complete with lifestyle second homes and its own golf course. Just recently, O Fournier, a Spanish-owned winery in El Cepillo at the southern end of the valley, started selling vineyard plots to investors at US$150,000 per hectare (ha).
The spiralling price of land is directly related to the quality of the area’s wines. In a short space of time, the Uco Valley has become the most exciting wine region in Argentina and one of the most talked about in the southern hemisphere. It makes the country’s best Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, and many of its leading red blends. More to the point, it has added a new dimension to Argentine Malbec, producing high-altitude wines that, at their best, display intense colour and perfume, as well as fresh acidity, dense black fruits and succulent tannins.
Far and wide
But let’s back up for a second and look at the lie of the land. For even though the Uco Valley is generally considered as a single entity, it is far from homogenous. The valley runs north to south and is 70km long and 40km wide. To the south, it is bound by desert, although cold winds come up from as far away as Patagonia, and to the north it’s bordered by hills, or cerrillos, at 1,400m or higher. The east of the valley runs into a series of gorges and dry riverbeds.
In terms of soil types, it is more varied than many Argentine wine regions. At the southern end of the valley, they are mostly sand and sandy loam, and what Argentines call pavimento del desierto (desert pavement): rocks and sand eroded by the wind. Further north, above 1,000m, the soils are ‘more interesting’ according to Doña Paula’s Edy Del Popolo, one of the top viticulturists in Argentina. ‘These are still alluvial formations,’ he explains, ‘but they are less modified. The landscape is more jagged, with outcrops of limestone in Altamira and river benches in Los Arboles and Vista Flores.’
Del Popolo is a particular fan of Gualtallary, right at the northern end of the valley, where Catena Zapata, like Doña Paula, grows some of its best grapes. ‘These are my favourite soils for top-quality viticulture,’ he says. ‘Vines grow moderately because of the cool climate and the poor soils. The vines are small bushes with balanced crops. For me, it is one of the best wine regions in the Americas.’
The Uco Valley is crossed by two rivers, the Tunuyán and Las Tunas, which rise in the Andes and flow into one another near the town of Tunuyán. Even though this is a cool region (at least by Argentine standards), with a diurnal variation of 20°C in summer and 18°C in winter, it is mostly too hot and dry for vines to survive without irrigation – although there are some old, dry-farmed vineyards.
As far as growing grapes is concerned, the limiting factor is access to water. This is an agricultural valley (there’s no heavy industry here, and roadside fruit stalls, groaning with brightly coloured produce, are almost a feature of the landscape) and its crops – with around 20,000ha of vineyards – need it to survive. Wineries without access to the rivers have to rely on springs or sink costly wells.
What strikes you most about the place when you visit is not its dryness, punctuated by green, water-fed oases of crops and trees, but the light: so bright and intense that you need sunglasses and a tube of factor 50 at nine o’clock in the morning. The air up here in the foothills of the Andes
is pure but thinning. Walk up a slope in Gualtallary, and you feel like you’ve been on a cross-trainer.
The mountains dominate the horizon to the west of the valley: massive, brooding, snow-crested peaks that seem even closer than they are, such is their size. Without the Andes, the region would be unremarkable in terms of beauty; with them, it is one of the most spectacular sites in the Americas.
The area has three sub-regions. From north to south, these are Tupungato, Tunuyán and San Carlos.
The highest part of the valley (around 1,700m) is at the northern end, where Salentein has its Finca San Pablo, while the lowest is El Cepillo (900m) in La Consulta. The warmest vineyards tend to be situated between 1,000m and 1,200m, the very areas that also grow cold-sensitive peaches and cherries; above that, the temperature drops again because of altitude.
‘Altitude is very important,’ says José-Manuel Ortega of O Fournier, ‘partly because of sunlight intensity, but mostly because of diurnal variation in summer. The high temperatures increase colour and aroma intensity in our grapes, while the low temperatures bring freshness and allow us to preserve acidity.’
The area under vine has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 12,235ha to 24,189ha. The most planted grape by far is Malbec, with 10,230ha (up from 3,166ha), but Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are also developing fast. Pick the right soil type and (more importantly) the right altitude, and you can produce almost anything here, from delicate whites to rich reds.
The roll-call of grapes includes: Barbera, Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tannat, Tempranillo (reds); and Chardonnay, Chenin, Pedro Xímenez, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Torrontés, Ugni Blanc and Viognier (whites). A classic Argentine mix of French, Italian and Spanish grapes.
In the past, there were very few actual wineries in the valley – only three in the early 1990s (Rutini, Gancia and Chandon) – and a lot of small growers. Even today, many Mendoza-based producers prefer to buy grapes here and vinify them outside of the valley. There are currently
more than 100 actual wineries in the valley, of which around 20 are major concerns, but hundreds of brands.
The Uco Valley is an international valley, developed by outsiders – from the United States and France, to Belgium and Iran. Maybe it took foreign capital and daring to develop a region that was regarded as marginal by Argentines. Whatever the explanation, most of the top producers, from O Fournier to Achaval Ferrer, Andeluna to Salentein, are foreign-owned. Of the best-known names, only Catena Zapata, Zuccardi, Mendel, Rutini and Finca Sophenia are fully Argentine.
The three foreign consultants who have done so much to shape the progress of Argentine wines – the Italian Alberto Antonini, the American Paul Hobbs, and the globe-trotting Frenchman Michel Rolland – have all got a stake in the Uco Valley; Antonini with his Altos Las Hormigas brand, Hobbs with Bramare, and Rolland with Val de Flores, Mariflor and as part of the Clos de los Siete group in Tunuyán. The first two buy grapes, whereas Rolland has invested his own money, although Hobbs is
in the process of acquiring his first vineyard here.
Antonini, who has been making an Uco Malbec since 1997, believes that the valley is ‘by far the best region in Mendoza because of its soils, light intensity, warm, sunny days and pretty cold nights. As a result, the grapes have brighter, fresher, more vibrant fruit – red rather than black – with natural acidity and lower pHs. The wines are long and mineral, and designed to age’.
Hobbs agrees: ‘The wines from our Rebón Vineyard are in La Consulta, which is the coolest part of the valley, and they have bright acidity, vibrant fruit and supple tannins. It’s their solid structure that gives them such good longevity.’
The Uco Valley isn’t only about foreigners, mind you. Catena Zapata stands out, not only as the leading producer in the region but in Argentina as a whole, producing high-altitude Chardonnays and Malbecs of distinction from its Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary. To me, Catena Zapata’s Alejandro Vigil is the greatest winemaker in the country. Add the talents of Daniel Pi (Trapiche), Sebastián Zuccardi (Zuccardi), Roberto de la Mota (Mendel), José Spisso (O Fournier), Matías Michelini (Passionate Wines and Zorzal) and Marcelo Pelleriti (Monteviejo), and the Uco Valley has an increasingly strong Argentine accent.
The combination of all these factors – climate, investment, soils, altitude and winemaking talent –
has made the Uco Valley the most thrilling wine region in Argentina. As the vines get older and grape varieties are matched more closely to specific terroirs, the quality of its wines can only improve. Argentina’s Napa Valley? You bet. That and more.
THE UCO VALLEY AT A GLANCE
Location: 80km southwest of Mendoza
Sub-regions: San Carlos, Tunuyán, Tupungato
Altitude: 900m to 1,700m
Climate: Continental: dry and sunny (250 days a year)
Number of wineries: Around 20 (many producers buy grapes here)
Number of brands: Around 100
Size of vineyard: 24,189ha
Average annual temperature: 14°C
Soils: Mostly alluvial, with some colluvial soils, river beds and patches of limestone.
Main varieties: Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris
Leading wineries: Achaval Ferrer, Andeluna Cellars, Bramare, Catena Zapata, Clos de los Siete, Cuvelier Los Andes, Diamandes, Doña Paula, Finca Sophenia, François Lurton, Lindaflor, Manos Negras, Masi Tupungato, Mendel, Monteviejo, O Fournier, Passionate Wines, Piattelli, Riglos, Rutini, Salentein, Trapiche, Val de Flores, Zorzal, Zuccardi
SOMMELIERS ON THE UCO
‘These are exciting, dynamic wines that have very strong sales with us, particularly the Malbecs. Unlike Chile, it’s not just the cheap stuff that does well. The middle and premium markets are very strong, too. And it’s a growing category.’
Dawn Davies, Selfridges
‘We have around 15 wines from the Uco Valley on our list. Our consumers don’t really know this region, unless they’ve been to Argentina, but that is changing. Uco wines have great expression of fruit, and are soft and velvety, with less extraction than some Malbecs. That’s why they have such a great future.’
Roberto Tavoloni, Casa Malevo
‘I have 10 reds from Argentina on the list, eight of them from Mendoza, but I don’t list the sub-regions, mainly because most producers don’t put them on their labels as a separate appellation. Generally, I think Uco Valley Malbecs have an extra dimension of freshness and fruitiness.’
Isa Bal, The Fat Duck