Exploring Argentina’s High-Elevation Uco Valley

What you need to know about the newly defi­ned subre­gions pro­du­cing some of the country’s most exci­ting, para­digm-shif­ting wines

Pho­to cour­tesy of Adrian­na Winery.

We make moun­tain wines here,” says Sebas­tián Zuc­car­di, sta­ting the obvious. He’s stan­ding in front of the solid-sto­ne winery he built two years ago in Uco Valley’s Alta­mi­ra dis­trict at nearly 4,000 feet abo­ve sea level whe­re his esta­te vine­yards prac­ti­cally hug the snow-cap­ped Andes Mountains.

Sin­ce joi­ning his family’s Mai­pu-based wine busi­ness, foun­ded by his grand­father in the 1960s, Zuc­car­di has been con­vin­ced that Uco Valley is the futu­re for Argen­ti­na, and he has devo­ted most of his energy and resour­ces to get­ting as clo­se to the moun­tains as possible.

The com­bi­na­tion of cal­cium car­bo­na­te-rich, allu­vial soils at this ele­va­tion is uni­que to Uco Valley,” he explains. “We can make fresh, mine­ral-dri­ven, high-energy wines here—totally dif­fe­rent from the fruity, for­mu­laic Mal­becs that peo­ple asso­cia­te with Men­do­za. Uco is barely two deca­des old, so we are just now begin­ning to unders­tand our terroir.”

Zuc­car­di is among a gro­wing group of pas­sio­na­te pro­du­cers wor­king to clas­sify Uco’s high-ele­va­tion terroirs and peti­tion for Geo­graphi­cal Indi­ca­tion (GI) sta­tus for the emer­ging dis­tricts that, although young, are res­pon­si­ble for Argentina’s para­digm-shif­ting wines.

Too High, Too Cold, Too Harsh

When Nico­lás Cate­na plan­ted his Adrian­na Vine­yard in Uco’s Gual­ta­llary dis­trict in 1993, most belie­ved he would fail. Lower Uco had some vine­yards, but no one had dared cul­ti­va­te gra­pes at 5,000 feet abo­ve sea level; the risk of frost was extre­me, and gro­wers assu­med gra­pes couldn’t ripen in the harsh, high-desert landscape.

But Cate­na was deter­mi­ned to find the col­dest pla­ce in Men­do­za to plant vines, and the intro­duc­tion of drip irri­ga­tion to the region meant that viti­cul­tu­re at higher sites was finally pos­si­ble. He set up weather sta­tions throughout the region and dis­co­ve­red that whi­le tem­pe­ra­tu­res were simi­lar to Cham­pag­ne, the bright­ness and extra hours of the sun­light could result in the holy grail of wine­ma­king: “Gra­pes on the edge of ripe­ness with fully matu­re tan­nins, natu­ral aci­dity, and only 13 per­cent alcohol,” explains his daugh­ter Lau­ra Cate­na, who now mana­ges the family’s Bode­ga Cate­na Zapata.

Around the same time, Dutch entre­pre­neur Mijn­dert Pon saw simi­lar poten­tial in Uco’s higher reaches. But ins­tead of a sin­gle vine­yard, he bet much big­ger, plan­ting hun­dreds of acres of mostly Mal­bec vines bet­ween 1996 and 1999, and cons­truc­ting a mas­si­ve, gra­vity-fed winery chris­te­ned Bode­gas Salen­tein. The first to put “Uco Valley” on its labels, Salen­tein is locally regar­ded as the region’s “loco­mo­ti­ve.”

The results from the­se pio­nee­ring vine­yards were evi­dent within seve­ral har­vests. Gra­pes grown here pos­ses­sed higher mine­ra­lity, more aci­dity, and fir­mer tan­nins com­pa­red to lower sites. “I had never seen acid levels like this in Argen­ti­na befo­re,” des­cri­bes Salentein’s wine­ma­ker of 20 years, José “Pepe” Galan­te (for­merly the wine­ma­ker at Cate­na). “They are the same as Chablis.”

Word spread quickly. The last two deca­des have seen explo­si­ve growth in Uco with dozens of new wine­ries and high demand for Uco fruit from pro­du­cers outsi­de the region. Vine­yard pri­ces have increa­sed twenty times in some cove­ted dis­tricts. Trail­bla­zers have con­ti­nued to test limits, plan­ting suc­cess­ful vine­yards well over 5,000 feet and others are pushing higher still: José Lova­glio, owner and wine­ma­ker of Vaglio, and the son of Susa­na Bal­bo, has plan­ted a Pinot Noir vine­yard (not yet in pro­duc­tion) in Uco’s La Carre­ra dis­trict that sits abo­ve 6,500 feet.

An Appellation Renaissance 

As many of the­se ori­gi­nal vine­yards come of age, the terroir con­ver­sa­tion has shif­ted from simply ele­va­tion to inclu­de soils, a topic Uco wine­ma­kers are obses­si­ve about. Some vine­yards have dozens of cali­ca­tas—eerily gra­ve-like pits dug in bet­ween vines to expo­se various layers of sub­soil. Some reveal lar­ge round boul­ders, others mari­ne fos­sils, peb­bles, or chalky cal­cium car­bo­na­te depo­sits; various com­bi­na­tions of mate­rial left behind when gla­ciers and rivers pushed allu­vial depo­sits down the slo­pes of the Andes millions of years ago.

Zuc­car­di dug 180 cali­ca­tas in his Pie­dra Infi­ni­ta vine­yard alo­ne (sour­ce of the acclai­med sin­gle vine­yard Pie­dra Infi­ni­ta Mal­bec), which unco­ve­red 40 dif­fe­rent soil types. Lau­ra Cate­na iden­ti­fied more than 200 dis­tinct par­cels in the Adrian­na vine­yard, which she now vini­fies sepa­ra­tely. For pro­du­cers here, the tre­men­do­us diver­sity of soils and micro­cli­ma­tes is what makes Uco so dis­tinct from Mendoza’s two other gro­wing areas—Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo—and what they belie­ve calls for a more spe­ci­fic clas­si­fi­ca­tion system.

Our gro­wers have been pushing hard for this GI sys­tem in Uco to focus on regio­nal spe­ci­fi­city,” says Jonathan Cha­plin, co-foun­der of Bra­zos Wine, a Brooklyn-based import com­pany which repre­sents many of the new small-sca­le Uco pro­du­cers. “No one in Argen­ti­na was tal­king about regions ten years ago, and today that’s all we do—we bring maps everywhere.”

This new laser focus on terroir coin­ci­des with a move towards a fresher wine sty­le in Uco—and not only from the youn­ger gene­ra­tion of pro­du­cers. “Today we make wines that are focu­sed on the pla­ce, with less new oak and ear­lier har­vest dates,” says Zuc­car­di, who ins­ta­lled 160 con­cre­te eggs and lar­ge fou­dre at his new winery. “Wor­king with con­cre­te and lar­ge vats is a return to the wine­ma­king cul­tu­re of the 1930s.” Salen­tein and other esta­blished names like Matías Ric­ci­te­lli and Paul Hobbs report pic­king their fruit as much as a month ear­lier than in the past and using more who­le-clus­ter fer­men­ta­tion for added fresh­ness. With less alcohol and extrac­tion, a clea­rer pic­tu­re of Uco’s regio­nal diver­sity is coming into focus.

Gualtallary: A Sunnier, Drier Burgundy 

In a cor­ner of Uco’s Tupun­ga­to region with vine­yards clim­bing to a mile abo­ve sea level, Gual­ta­llary stands out for its rocky, allu­vial, chalky soils. Con­vin­ced this high moun­tain oasis was ideal for orga­nic far­ming, Lan­gue­doc vig­ne­ron Jean Bous­quet plan­ted vine­yards in the sha­dow of the Tupun­ga­to moun­tain in the early 1990s. Today, Domai­ne Bous­quet is the lar­gest expor­ter of orga­nic wine from Argen­ti­na, pro­du­cing 300,000 cases of (shoc­kingly affor­da­ble) wine. Bous­quet just debu­ted their first unoa­ked, sul­fi­te-free wine, Vir­gen Malbec.

Gual­ta­llary is fresh­ness and ele­gan­ce,” says daugh­ter Anne Bous­quet, who now runs the domai­ne. “We get bright red berry, mine­ral, and flo­ral notes in our wines, as well as more struc­tu­re.” Indeed, The Cate­na Ins­ti­tu­te research cen­ter found that the uni­que lumi­no­sity of moun­tain sun­light in Gual­ta­llary increa­ses tan­nins in gra­pe skins.

Gual­ta­llary pro­du­cers find inten­se terroir expres­sion coming from even very young vines. Edgar­do (Edy) del Popo­lo and David Bono­mi left jobs at com­mer­cial wine­ries to plant bush vines that natu­rally yield 40 per­cent less fruit than the region’s average—under one pound per plant. Their first vin­ta­ge, 2012, sho­wed an aro­ma­tic com­ple­xity and fine-grai­ned tan­nins that would take years to deve­lop in young vines grown in other regions, Popo­lo belie­ves. “In Gual­ta­llary we are able to craft wines with rare purity that really speak of their lands­ca­pe.” (Gual­ta­llary has yet to be offi­cially appro­ved as a GI becau­se the name is a regis­te­red tra­de­mark owned by a sin­gle producer.)

Caber­net Franc is gene­ra­ting a lot of inter­est here today; though less than 1 per­cent of plan­tings, it’s the district’s most exci­ting gra­pe, many claim. “Gual­ta­llary is the best pla­ce for Caber­net Franc in Argentina—it needs ele­va­tion,” says Matias Miche­li­ni, who foun­ded Zor­zal with brothers Gerar­do and Juan Pablo in 2007. Fer­men­ted and aged in con­cre­te eggs, Zorzal’s Eggo Fran­co is pep­pery, savory, and earthy with elec­tric aci­dity. Domai­ne Bous­quet, Ruti­ni, and Ande­lu­na are also big Caber­net Franc cham­pions here.

Paraje Altamira: Structured, Savory Malbec

In the southern Uco Valley, the Para­je Alta­mi­ra dis­trict bro­ke away from the lar­ger La Con­sul­ta region in San Car­los in 2013—the first GI decla­red based on terroir research, not poli­ti­cal boun­da­ries, which paved the way for Uco’s GI system’s evo­lu­tion. Acha­val Ferrer’s Fin­ca Alta­mi­ra is arguably the district’s most famous wine; more recently Zuc­car­di and Altos Las Hor­mi­gas have built wine­ries here.

Alta­mi­ra fea­tu­res hea­vier soils than Gual­ta­llary, with loads of silt and cal­cium carbonate—and some very lar­ge rocks (which makes plan­ting vine­yards costly and dif­fi­cult). Wines here tend to be fuller-bodied with dark fruit and herbs; Malbec—by far the district’s star grape—shows power and con­cen­tra­tion with fresh aci­dity. Zuccardi’s Poli­go­nos Alta­mi­ra, one in a series of sin­gle vine­yard Mal­becs made in dif­fe­rent dis­tricts, illus­tra­tes Altamira’s uni­que underl­ying sali­nity. “The cal­ca­reous soils here for­ce vines dee­per and add struc­tu­re, which the Mal­bec variety can often lack,” Zuc­car­di explains.

San Pablo: Uco’s Coolest, Wettest District 

San Pablo is Uco’s newest GI, appro­ved in 2019 follo­wing a three-year research effort led by Zuc­car­di, Patri­cia Ortiz’s Tapiz esta­te, and Salen­tein. A newer area with a remar­kably dis­tinct micro­cli­ma­te, San Pablo sees more rain and humi­dity than other districts—and often snow. “San Pablo makes wines with ten­sion,” says Galan­te. “It’s not com­mon to see this rela­tionship bet­ween low pH and alcohol, which gives aro­ma­tic inten­sity and freshness.”

Salentein’s Noga­les vine­yard, at the southern end of San Pablo, gets enough rain to make dry far­ming possible—an extre­me rarity in Men­do­za (which has the lowest rain­fall of any wine region in the world). Its Las Sequoias vineyard—the highest in San Pablo, plan­ted to Char­don­nay and Pinot Noir—is lush and green, surroun­ded by 80-year-old red­wood trees, a biza­rre sight in the midd­le of the desert. “It’s a micro­cli­ma­te within a micro­cli­ma­te,” Galan­te describes.

Zuc­car­di picks his nine-year-old San Pablo vineyard—source of his salty Fósil Char­don­nay and pep­pery Poli­go­nos Caber­net Franc and Malbec—almost a month behind his other sites, and the gra­pes still result in wines with lower alcohol levels, he reports. Wines here also pos­sess an unu­sual color inten­sity, obser­ves Tapiz’s Patri­cia Ortiz (the reason she named her sin­gle vine­yard San Pablo Mal­bec “Black Tears”).

Chacayes: Hotbed of Experimentation

Gran­ted GI sta­tus in 2018, Cha­ca­yes has long been an inno­va­ti­ve area. Fran­co­is Lur­ton pio­nee­red the region in 1996 when he came “loo­king for fresh­ness,” reports Pie­dra Negra’s wine­ma­ker Thi­bault Lepou­tre. The region’s rocky, non-fer­ti­le soils are extre­mely dif­fi­cult to plant, he explains; tho­se unde­te­rred are rewar­ded with wines high in natu­ral aci­dity, tan­nin and color—and the abi­lity to farm orga­ni­cally without too much effort.

The trend here has moved towards natu­ral, non-inter­ven­tio­nist wine­ma­king. Lepou­tre has trans­for­med Pie­dra Negra’s icon bottling, L’Esprit de Cha­ca­yes, by pic­king one month ear­lier, fer­men­ting in con­cre­te eggs, and moving away from new oak. He’s also now making a sul­fi­te-free Mal­bec, a pro­ject that took him five years to perfect.

At their Super­Uco winery, the Miche­li­ni brothers (of Zor­zal and Pas­sio­na­te Wines), have been wor­king biody­na­mi­cally sin­ce 2012, and plant vines in non-tra­di­tio­nal con­cen­tric cir­cles based on ripe­ning cycles; they fer­ment with nati­ve yeasts in egg-sha­ped clay ampho­ra. “Becau­se of the very low pH we have at har­vest, it’s so much easier to make natu­ral wine here; bac­te­ria is less of a pro­blem,” says Matias Michelini.

Cha­ca­yes terroir suits a wide ran­ge of varie­ties beyond Mal­bec. Pie­dra Negra pro­du­ces a lar­ge amount of Pinot Gris, and their impres­si­vely age­worthy Gran Lur­ton Whi­te is based on Friu­lano and Viog­nier. Luis Regi­na­to, another lea­ding for­ce in Cha­ca­yes (and direc­tor of viti­cul­tu­re for Cate­na Zapa­ta), is making a skin con­tact, con­cre­te-fer­men­ted Gewürz­tra­mi­ner under his Cha­man label.

Eduar­do Soler foun­ded Ver Sacrum in Cha­ca­yes in 2012 to focus on Rhô­ne gra­pes with cut­tings from an old Mai­pu plan­ting. “For years, color and qua­lity were per­cei­ved as the same thing, so Gre­na­che disap­pea­red from Argentina—we want to bring it back.” His bush-vine Gar­na­cha and Monas­trell (Mour­ve­dre) are both mar­ked by flo­ral, whi­te pep­per, cool-cli­ma­te cha­rac­ter; the Ver Sacrum Geisha de Jade, a Mar­san­ne-Rous­san­ne blend aged 12 months on lees under a veil of flor, is hone­yed, nutty yet bright. “My aim is to cha­llen­ge the ima­ge of Argen­ti­na as a pro­du­cer of only ove­rri­pe, high alcohol wine,” says Soler.

As expe­ri­men­ta­tion con­ti­nues in Uco, new GIs are car­ved out, and matu­ring vines beco­me increa­singly expres­si­ve of pla­ce, a new per­cep­tion of Argen­ti­na has already begun to sup­plant the old.

Kris­ten Bie­ler is the execu­ti­ve edi­tor of Seven­Fifty Daily and the edi­tor in chief of Beve­ra­ge Media Group publi­ca­tions. Based in New York City, she has been wri­ting about wine, spi­rits and food for nearly two deca­des, and her work has appea­red in GQ, TAS­TE, and Food & Wine Magazine’s Annual Wine Gui­de, among others. She is also a jud­ge at the Ulti­ma­te Wine Cha­llen­ge. Follow her on Ins­ta­gram: @bielerkristen.

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