It’s remoteness is part of its charm. Anthony Rose heads into the foothills of the Andes to explore the back-to-nature delights of Argentina, in his Uco Valley travel guide.
Uco Valley fact file:
Planted area: 24,000ha
Main grapes: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Barbera, Bonarda, Merlot, Tempranillo for reds; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Torrontés for whites
Average temperature: 14°C
Co-ordinates: 33°37S 69°08W
For more information: valledeuco.com and turismovinalto.comar
Take a stroll through a Tupungato vineyard at sunrise and you may just catch a glimpse of a silvery moon sinking as a dazzling golden sun rises to strike the snowcapped volcano’s peak. Accompanying the crunch of gravelly vineyard soil underfoot, the only sounds are birdsong, the occasional bark of a dog or neigh of a horse and the whispering of vine leaves in the breeze. This is the gentle, beating heart of the Uco Valley.
With desert to the south, small hills to the north and dry riverbed country on its eastern border, this picturesque valley is self-contained. But it’s no Napa. Rather, it’s an unspoiled fruit and vegetable garden whose secret lies in its tranquil, back-tonature feel along with scant regard for mass tourism. If you’re looking for ‘bijou charm’, the T-shirt to go with it and a stay at a Hilton or Sheraton, look elsewhere.
If, on the other hand, you love wine and the outdoor life, you will discover it all here. The Uco Valley is a dramatic landscape, with big skies, charming posadas and estancias, small hotels and enticing restaurants. Any time of the year is good to visit, although winters can be cold and summers hot. Autumn is particularly beautiful as the vines and trees turn to 50 shades of amber, russet and gold.
Cool and calm
Take Route 40 across the valley floor and spindly poplar and willow windbreaks that line the road recede into the distance as the wall of changing shapes, contours and silhouettes of the Andes becomes your constant travelling companion. Bisected by a web of tributaries of the Tunuyán River, the Uco Valley is 40km wide and 70km in length, running from the northern department of Tupungato through Tunuyán to San Carlos in the south. Compared to the more traditional regions of Luján de Cuyo further north and Rivadavia to Mendoza’s east, Uco’s poplar-sheltered vineyards sit at a higher altitude of between 1,000m and 1,500m and so are relatively cool.
Since the discovery in the 1990s of the correlation between altitude and elegance in wine, new wineries have mushroomed in Uco, while traditional producers, such as Catena and Famila Zuccardi, have also invested in the region. For this reason, Uco is becoming increasingly popular as a wine playground for both Mendoza residents and visitors from overseas.
Uco is the source of many of Argentina’s greatest red wines, with an array of interpretations of the Malbec grape their number one attraction. Almost as far south as you can go inside the valley before taking the road to San Rafael, the Spanish-owned Bodega O Fournier (ofournier.com) is an astonishing piece of architecture in El Cepillo, with a roof akin to a helicopter landing pad or professor’s mortar board. It’s worth a visit not just for the wines but the restaurant with its backdrop of vineyards and snowy peaks.
The most spectacular of Uco’s wineries is Clos de los Siete (rollandcollection.com), a five-winery complex conceived by the French über-consultant Michel Rolland in the mid-1990s. Set in breathtaking scenery, like a collection of Inca mausoleums, each of the five makes its own wines and contributes to the overarching Clos de los Siete brand.
Further north towards Tupungato, there are wineries whose architecture matches the grandeur of the wines. At Salentein (salentein.com), there’s the Killka Art Gallery and cultural centre, which houses collections of contemporary Argentine art and Dutch artists. Finca Sophenia (sophenia.com/ar) and the Catena-owned Rutini (rutiniwines.com) are worth a visit for their finely crafted Malbecs, while Andeluna’s (andeluna.com) exceptional wines are matched with superb food from its open-plan kitchen.
Despite a wealth of outdoor experiences in Uco, some would say the region is still under-resourced. Frankly, this is good news for those in search of tranquillity and good wine. With the favourable exchange rate and a thriving black market, the canny traveller can feel rich in pocket as well as in spirit.
Uco is the most unspoiled wine region I know, but not, I suspect, for very long. The O Fournier bodega is selling vineyard plots to investors, and its owner José Manuel Ortega is planning a hotel. The first part of an ambitious new project, Valle de Uco, will open by the end of the year with five luxury tents for ‘glamping’, while Tupungato Winelands and Vines of Mendoza are among a number of ambitious projects in the pipeline.
The dual carriageway out of Luján is being extended from 40km to 70km, which will reduce the travel time from Mendoza City to Tunuyán in the heart of the Uco Valley from 90 minutes to under an hour. So, undoubtedly, in the next 10 years Uco Valley tourism will boom.
For would-be visitors to one of the world’s as-yet least-spoiled wine regions, there’s no time like the present to plan your trip.
Written by Anthony Rose
A perfect day in the Uco Valley
Up with the lark, or the condor at least, at Tupungato Divino (pictured). Drive south to Vista Flores to visit the astonishing neo-Incan complex of Clos de los Siete and ace viticuturist Carlos Tizio. Then taste a range of wines from the five bodegas and Clos de los Siete itself. Off to O Fournier at El Cepillo for a winery tour and a taste of the Tempranillo blends. If you’re running late, you will be glad of lunch at the restaurant, Urban.
Head back north to Tunuyán and stop at La Posada del Jamón which specialises in cuts of pork. Sit on the terrace and try the salty jamón and the piggy ribs, sausages and black pudding, along with a crisp salad and a glass of Malbec.
Double back to Tupungato and visit Salentein with its impressive underground circular cellars and taste the wines. That gives you just enough time to take in Bodega Atamisque, whose woods, ponds, lakes and streams is as close to out-of-this-world as you’ll get. Walk, cycle or horse ride, then visit the trout farm where David and Francisco will explain the different fish or catch you one for tomorrow’s lunch in its flower-festooned restaurant, El Rincón.
Evening and overnight
Most of Uco’s wineries with restaurants are only open for lunch, so visit the incomparable Ilo in downtown Tupungato. In this traditional-to-thepoint- of-retro family restaurant, there’s a menu of more than 100 fish dishes, some of which may need translating. An extensive local wine list includes Dom Pérignon at around £75 at the black market rate. Head back to your cabin at Atamisque.
For Anthony Rose’s Uco Valley wine tourism video, visit Decanter.com/ucovalley
Uco Valley: Where to stay, eat and relax
In a rural setting of outstanding natural beauty with woods, ponds, lakes and streams, the owners Jean Dunonceau and his wife Chantal have created a magical spot where three lodges, each with two ensuite rooms, blend rusticity and Mendozan style with the personal touch. Hike, play golf, go horse riding, visit the trout farm and dine at El Rincón.
Pablo Cerrutti and Sergio Viegas, both from Buenos Aires, created Tupungato Divino in 2006 because it’s a great place to live. Four cabines within 5ha (hectares) are accompanied by a cosy restaurant with log fire, winery and wine shop. They make 100 litres a year from the vineyards as a hobby.
The Dutch-owned Bodega Salentein is the tranquil home to Posada Salentein, an exclusive estancia at Los Arboles in Tunuyán. It has 16 doubles surrounded by vineyards, along with a restaurant and patio for barbecues and enjoying wine.
In 40ha of land, the four-star Fuente Mayor Hotel & Resort is on Route 92 in Vista Flores 90 minutes south of Mendoza City. It is large for Uco, with 90 rooms and four cabins, along with a restaurant, spa and a casino.
Casa Antucura Wine Lodge
Antucura is a luxury inn set in its own vineyards near Vista Flores with eight elegant rooms, breathtaking views, a restaurant and outdoor pool. It’s an ideal springboard for wine tours by bicycle, rafting, horse riding and a visit to Diamante Lake with its water like jade.
A respite from beef, the family-run Ilo in Tupungato is a remarkable oasis of seafood in the Andean semi-desert. Specialities include tuna, sole, black hake, pollock, salmon, and all manner of Pacific and Atlantic shellfish, along with an extensive local wine list.
+ 54 (0)2622 488323
For the best grill in town, the unpretentious but aptly named El Cielo, meaning heaven, is where the locals eat. The fresh salad of mixed leaves, avocado, palm hearts and gherkins is good, but the centerpiece is the gargantuan 500g sirloin steak.
+54 (0)2622 470814
La Posada del Jamón
Miguel Cairo and Mabel Bordoy’s La Posada del Jamón specialises in succulently juicy ribs, sausages, home-cured jamón and fresh, melt-in-the-mouth black pudding. It also has cabins simply and comfortably furnished.
In Andeluna Cellars in Gualtallary you can watch the chef and staff orchestrate a menu of tortellini, tenderloin beef and bitter chocolate pudding, or eat on the terrace with great views of the Cordillera. Booking advised.
The Vines of Mendoza
Francis Mallmann’s Siete Fuegos barbecues have been held regularly during the 2013 harvest season in anticipation of his eponymous restaurant due to open later this year along with The Vines Resort & Spa.
Urban en O Fournier
Urban by name only (above), this is Argentina with a Spanish accent. José Manuel Ortega’s wife Nadia, a gifted cook with an eponymous restaurant in Chacras de Coria in Mendoza, oversees the menu using fresh local ingredients. The ice cream, pastry, bread and pasta are all hand-made. There are also seven rural cottages with private bathrooms.
A recent addition to the Uco restaurant scene at Vista Flores, La Juntada offers traditional food using local products. It has the same owners as the traditional Almacén de Uco in Manzano Histórico, which is open on Sundays and is always full thanks to its home-cooked grilled goat, lamb, beef and empanadas.
How to get there:
Fly to Mendoza via Buenos Aires or Santiago (20 hours from London). Tunuyán, in the centre of the Uco Valley, is a 90-minute drive (82km) from Mendoza City. For more information,