Its decision to look beyond its existing vineyards to the Uco Valley has transformed the Zuccardi wines, says Patricio Tapia. He explains how a winery founded to showcase irrigation systems has become one of Argentina’s best...
Location: Mendoza, Argentina
Number of hectares: 1,001ha, of which 180ha are in the Maipu area, 475ha in Santa Rosa and 310ha in Uco Valley
Annual production: 2,200,000 cases, 40% of which comes from Uco Valley
Brands of Zuccardi wines: Zuccardi, Santa Julia and Fusión’
It’s only half-built. Rough walls of stone and cement rise, somewhat misshapen, like a fort that has just suffered a deadly attack. In the background tower the Andes Mountains, cold and impressive; a silhouette of sharply pointed peaks that slice across the horizon. In a few months’ time, this building will be Zuccardi’s new winery in Altamira.
Here, in Mendoza’s desert, the cacti and thorn trees survive on sand. There are also chalky-white limestone soils and round stones left by rivers that dried up thousands of years ago, gentle slopes that yield some of the best wines that Argentina has ever made. It is here, in the heights of the Uco Valley, that the Zuccardi family is making its biggest bets on the future.
Erecting the winery is the culmination of work that began in 2002 when the Zuccardis decided to look beyond their original vineyards near the city of Mendoza. But before they could think about building a winery in Altamira, or even about buying grapes in the Uco Valley, many things had to happen. And almost all were connected to a young man who was born in Tucumán, northern Argentina, who studied engineering, and who came to Mendoza to try his luck. His name is Alberto Zuccardi.
In 1950, Zuccardi was about to turn 30 (he’s still going strong at 92) and had never worked in wine. He moved to the city to set up a cement-pipe irrigation system that was being used in California at that time. Mendoza seemed like the ideal place: a desert that had to be kept at bay. His idea was to show that the system would be a good way to use water more efficiently and stave off those everthreatening desert sands and paint the land green. In 1963 he decided to plant a vineyard in the Maipú area to demonstrate how efficient his system was.
And over the years what had originally seemed to simply be an extension of his engineering work turned into something more serious. Five years after that first plantation, Zuccardi broke ground on a winery in the same spot to vinify the grapes that his irrigation method had allowed him to grow. ‘My father began to realise that his vocation was viticulture,’ says José Zuccardi, his son and current president of the Familia Zuccardi wine company.
From bulk to bottle
The Zuccardis made and sold bulk wines for a little over two decades until the early 1980s when Argentina suffered one of its largest viticultural crises. Many bottling plants went broke and thousands of hectares of vineyards were pulled up. Of the 50,000ha of Malbec that had been planted in Mendoza (mostly very old vineyards planted by the first generations of European immigrants), barely 10,000ha remained. It was during those years that Zuccardi decided that since no one was buying his bulk wine, he would bottle it himself.
While Alberto Zuccardi’s work was to establish a winery in times of crisis, the work of his son José (who joined the company in 1976) was to strengthen it. His first step, and probably his first accomplishment, was to look at the export market. ‘I remember the first time I went to an international fair; it was Vinexpo in 1991. And that opened a whole new world for me,’ recalls José.
During that first trip, Zuccardi made a deal to export wines (to the UK) – something that few Argentinian wineries had attempted up to then. In 1990 the total amount of Argentinian wine exported (and almost none bottled) was less than US$15 million. ‘For my father and I it was a kind of contradiction that Argentina was the fourth or fifth largest wine producer globally, yet was completely absent from international markets,’ says José. Today the family company exports 55% of the 2,200,000 cases it produces, while Argentina generates about US$500 million (£307m) from wine exports.
Zuccardi owes its consolidation as a front-line player in the Argentinian wine scene to José, now 55, whose energy and charisma stand out in a country full of very charismatic people. It is thanks to him that the Zuccardi family name is recognised as one of the wine industry’s leaders. But he is not resting on his laurels.
The move to Uco
I have been visiting the Zuccardis for many years, since the late 1990s. I remember well the barbecues under the pergola that has now become one of the most popular winery restaurants in Mendoza (it receives 50,000 tourists every year). The wines, however, never seemed up to the level of the hospitality – at least not until the family moved into the Uco Valley. And that is where we turn to the third generation of Zuccardis, personified by Sebastián, José’s eldest son.
Sebastián has inherited his father’s energy, as well as his ease and magnetism when communicating with people – a warm tone in his voice that makes you feel special and welcome. He arrived at the company in 2002, and one of his first projects was the Uco Valley. José recalls: ‘I told him that we already had too much going on, so if he wanted to expand Zuccardi’s horizons, he would have to join the company and do it himself.’
That year the family began buying grapes up there and the difference in the wines was evident immediately. ‘Nobody needed convincing,’ said Sebastián. ‘The character of the high-altitude grapes spoke for itself, so looking toward that area was natural.’ The vigour, nerve and acidity of the fruit contrasted dramatically – especially in the Malbec – with the grapes from the family’s traditional vineyards in the lower, warmer zones.
Those first grapes from small producers had an immediate effect on the Zuccardi brand catalogue. Although its flagship to that point had been the Q line, with Tempranillo from Santa Rosa leading the way, the quality of the 2002 grapes from the Uco Valley allowed Zuccardi to go above and beyond with a new icon wine. The inaugural release of Zeta 2002, a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, retailed at the almost unheard of price for Argentina at the time of US$20 a bottle.
Zeta was the first attempt at giving the grapes from Uco the status they deserved. In Burgundian terms, Zeta was a generic wine – the equivalent of Bourgogne. The village and cru wines would follow on later.
Two years after Zeta’s debut, the Zuccardis decided to complement the purchased grapes with their own vineyards in Uco. The first was in the Vista Flores sub-region. Four more followed: in La Consulta, La Ribera, San Pablo and Altamira, all privileged areas of this Andean region.
Zeta was the first regional approach to Uco, but research and experiments in soils and vineyard management have allowed Zuccardi to progress further and into much more specific terrain. Last year, for example, the company launched Aluvional from La Consulta, a type of village wine (to continue with the Burgundy metaphors) that aims to interpret this sub-region of Uco through Malbec.
This year the company is preparing the finca (or cru) wines – the result of Sebastián’s exhaustive vineyard research, analysing row by row and soil by soil until he found enough differences to be able to express them through the wines. That is the aim of the Fincas collection. The first release is Los Membrillos, a Cabernet Sauvignon from La Consulta whose depth and complexity of flavour place it among Argentina’s best Cabernets.
Beyond Uco, the perspective of a good wine has to be changed. ‘Today we make wines that are more focused on the place, with less new oak, more freshness and earlier harvest dates,’ says Sebastián. In other words, don’t be surprised, then, if you find a Santa Julia Malbec that seems like cherry juice ready to drink by the pool.
Speaking of pools, there could be few better spots for one than right next to Zuccardi’s halffinished winery in Altamira; that stone-walled fortress undaunted by the majesty of the Andes behind it. A winery that aims to produce the Uco Valley’s best wines. That fort is now the future of Zuccardi – a structure made with the same stones, limestone and sand that shape its best wines.
Written by Patricio Tapia