Of the many different wine regions in Argentina, one stands out for its intensity and breadth of styles – an area where you’re just as likely to find a juicy, characterful Malbec as you are a subtly textured Pinot Noir, where vineyards climb up the slopes of glacier-capped mountains: the Uco Valley.
Connoisseurs will already be familiar with the name but it’s also one that shoppers ought to look out for in the supermarket aisles; a safe bet liable to amply exceed expectations. Among the most exciting wine regions in the world, the valley has redefined the international reputation of Argentinian fine wines. And the producers know it.
‘The Uco Valley is one of those regions that offers infinite variations of soil and climate types, allowing us to make very different kinds of wine, from intense, fleshy Malbecs to skinny, taut Pinot Noirs to vibrant Sauvignon Blancs,’ says Jorge Cabeza, senior winemaker at Salentein, one of the wineries that pioneered production from the valley. ‘The conditions here can’t be found anywhere else in the world.’
This isn’t an exaggeration. Run through the different wine producing valleys you’re familiar with in your mind. Which of them boasts 4,800m high mountains planted with carefully maintained vineyards? Where else does the sun shine so clearly through such crisp, hallucinatory skies?
A guide to the Uco Valley
Located 88km to the south of the City of Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes, the Uco Valley spans the departments of Tunuyán, Tupungato and San Carlos. This explains why wines from there are often labelled with one of these three place names.
Whereas in 2005 the valley had 16,800ha under vine, today it contains 28,600ha, representing 19% of all the vineyards in Mendoza. To put it another way: almost one in five bottles produced in Mendoza, comes from the valley.
Because the region is so large, in recent years producers have been carrying out detailed analysis to identify smaller Geographic Indications (GIs). Paraje Altamira, Los Chacayes and San Pablo are some of the most famous, together with Gualtallary (for which approval is still pending), and all contain vineyards set at altitudes of between 900m and 1,500m. Irrigation water comes from the magnificent glaciers above, mainly channelled by the Tunuyán and Las Tunas rivers.
If it takes a unique region to make a unique wine, then the Uco Valley is certainly a place to go looking for them. Focused on growing high quality grapes, mainly red varieties, of which Malbec and Cabernet Franc are especially prominent, producers from the valley are also making excellent whites from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vines.
The climate is continental: dry with plenty of sun, low rainfall, cold winters and warm summers with a large thermal range. The point of difference is the altitude, which defines the temperature (on average, it drops 1༠C every 150m higher up you go) and the cool climate has lured many producers away from warmer areas further down. All these different factors result in expressive, tense reds and vibrant whites.
The proximity and exposure to the Andes make for alluvial, rocky soils with widely varying mixtures of sand, limestone and clay in unique combinations that produce memorable wines.
Many wineries have thus commissioned in-depth studies to explore the nature and origins of the soils in which their vineyards are planted and are increasingly coming around to the idea that the Uco Valley requires a plant by plant approach. ‘The Uco Valley showed us the way in terms of familiarising ourselves with and interpreting the terroir,’ says Sebastián Zuccardi, a winemaker who grows grapes in several different locations in the valley for his wines.
Proof of the efficacy of all that study, not to mention the winemakers’ enthusiasm for the area, these 12 essential wines from the Uco Valley that I have selected will offer wine lovers a clearer picture of the potential that underlies every bottle produced there.
Twelve Uco Valley wines to try