For almost 60 years the Zuccardi family has been making wine in Argentina’s Mendoza region. We visited one of their 3 wineries to hear their story first-hand, have a delicious traditional asado lunch and to taste their wines.
Mendoza is Argentina’s premier wine-growing region. It is a high elevation plateau that has 350,000 acres planted to grape vines at the base of the Andes Mountains.
The vineyards are planted at elevations of 2,600 to 5,000 feet, making them some of the highest vineyards on the planet.
This is desert country where cacti and needled brushes want to grow on the sandy soils. The region gets less than 8 inches of rainfall per year and the air is very dry. These are inhospitable lands, not good for any sort of crops unless you can irrigate. There are three sub-regions within the larger Mendoza region: Luan de Cuyo, Uco Valley and Maipu. While many varieties, both red and white are planted in Mendoza, Malbec is the star and the wine that has built this region’s reputation.
The Zuccardi family’s initial foray into winemaking was not a direct one.
Alberto Zuccardi, just 30 years old at the time, was an engineer focusing on irrigation systems. He studied a cement pipe irrigation system being used in California which he believed could be applied to the high desert of Mendoza. To demonstrate the efficiency of his system, he planted a vineyard in Maipu. The year was 1963. His irrigation system worked, and his vineyard regularly produced a healthy crop of grapes. 5 years later, Alberto decided to build a winery at his vineyard site and vinify his grapes. Alberto did not bottle his wine but instead sold the wine in bulk to other producers for over 2 decades.
In the 1980s, Argentina went through a severe financial crisis. Growth stagnated, financial markets collapsed and inflation, which had been gradually rising in previous decades went parabolic, hitting 2,600 percent. With the economy in tatters the wine industry went through an enormous contraction. Wineries and bottling plants went broke. Alberto struggled to find anyone to buy his bulk wine. Thousands of acres of vineyards were pulled up or left unattended. The size of the Malbec crop shrunk by 80%. With no one able to buy his bulk wine, Alberto decided to bottle it himself.
Alberto’s son Jose had joined his father at the winery. If Argentinians lacked the funds to buy his wines, Jose would seek to export them to countries where they could afford to pay. This was a bold approach, something few other Argentinian wineries had ever tried. Argentina had no real reputation within the international community for making wine. But Jose was able to convince buyers in the UK to purchase his wines which began a tradition of exporting that the Zuccardi’s continue to this day. 55% of their 2.2 million case annual production is exported to markets around the world.
The next evolution at Zuccardi was to move up into the quality wine market. From their initial days as a bulk wine producer the focus had been good wine at reasonable prices. Jose’s son Sebastian gets much of the credit in moving Zuccardi into the premium wine markets. Sebastian knew that the wine can only be as good as the grapes used to produce it, and the grapes in turn can only be as good as the vineyard used to grow them. To pursue a focus on increased quality they began buying grapes from vineyards in the Uco Valley. The difference was noticeable immediately.
The Uco Valley is about a 75-minute drive south of Mendoza and is Argentina’s newest wine region. It is also one of the highest with most of its vineyards planted at elevations between 3,000 and 3,900 feet. It has quickly gained international recognition as a quality region.
The Zuccardi’s immediately noticed a difference in the quality of their wines made from Uco grapes.
The elevation of these vineyards meant a cooler growing season than generally found in the family’s traditional vineyards in the lower, warmer regions. The Uco Valley is able to fully ripen their grapes, but the elevation gives cooler evenings retaining more acidity and resulting in wines of greater definition and character.
After just 2 years of purchasing grapes from small growers in the Uco Valley, the Zuccardi’s were convinced and began developing their own vineyards there. Today Zuccardi has 3 vineyards in the Uco Valley: 37 hectares at La Consulta in San Carlos; 55 hectares at Vista Flores at Tunuyan and 90 hectares at Altimira, also in San Carlos. These compliment the 475 hectares at Santa Rosa and their original 180 acres in Maipu.
Zuccardi has three wineries: Zuccardi, Santa Julia and Malamado.
Our visit took place at Santa Julia where they have a spectacular outdoor asado and served us a very special lunch. Santa Julia was created in 1982 in honour of Jose’s only daughter, Julia. The focus is on premium wines grown using sustainable practices from certified organic vineyards. Since 2001 Julia has directed operations there.
We started with an aperitif outside and watched their chefs working the asado. Asado is the traditional outdoor barbeque of Argentina where various meats, usually beef, pork, chicken and sausage, are cooked over wood fires. Their asado is a big affair that throws off lots of heat and a fair amount of smoke. As Canadians more used to cold and wet, we had to stand well back and wonder how the cooks could do what they do all day long!
We were fortunate enough to have empanadas made for us by the “Queen of Empanandas” Maria del Carmen Vicario.
She earned her title at the Fiesta de la Empanada, Argentina’s national competition that takes place at a fair to celebrate Argentina’s independence and is attended by over 150,000 people. Maria is the most humble of Queens and prefers to go by the name of ChaCha. ChaCha learned the art of the empanada from her mother and perfected it while working for Zuccardi. She actually started there as a dishwasher but when her true talents were discovered she was quickly promoted to the asado! She made us her signature onion sautéed in beef lard empanada that was simply out of this world.
After the empanadas we enjoyed the rest of the asado, sampling different selections of meat taken right off the wood fired grill and on to our plates.
This was accompanied by a delicious selection of salads and the most amazing olive focaccia bread. As the following tasting notes will show, the wines of Zuccardi and Santa Julia are up to the quality level of this delicious food. Zuccardi ships their wines all across the world. These are quality wines that are sold at very fair prices and are well worth seeking out.
2017 Santa Julia Tension La Ribera
This is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Semillon from their Finca Ribera located at over 2,900 feet above sea level in the Uco Valley. We get flavours of melon and cantaloupe with hints of pear and citrus on the finish. This wine has medium body and medium+ acidity. There is a hint of creaminess to the texture which is nicely balanced by the acidity.
2017 Santa Julia Bonarda
The Bonarda grape was a discovery for us on this trip, having never tasted it before.
Dark red/garnet in colour it offers up fruity notes of black cherry, blueberry with slight herbal hints. It is similar to Malbec, slightly lighter and a bit higher in acidity. Think of a slightly fresher, un-oaked style of Malbec and you have something close to Bonarda. The savoury aspects and the higher acidity spoke of the grapes Italian roots.
2015 Jose Zuccardi Malbec
This Malbec is blended with 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and is made with grapes from Gualtallery and Altamira, prime vineyards high in the Valle de Uco. Richly textured with primary notes of plum and black cherry, the wine get additional complexity from the herbs and earth notes. Sharply focused, this wine has great balance and poise. Approachable now, but will continue to develop with medium term cellaring.
2016 Zuccardi Tito
Here the Malbec is blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Ancelotta. Fermented in concrete vats, 40% of the wine was transferred to 500 litre French Oak barrels. We get classic dark cherry notes with hints of vanilla and just a touch of barnyard. The 16% ABV can be detected on the nose and in the slight burn in the after taste. We wonder if more oak might have created a more balanced wine, given the high alcohol. Still, the quality is unmistakable.
2015 Zuccardi Aluvional
This wine takes its name from the alluvial soils where the grapes are grown in the Uco Valley. The wine is a selection of best Malbec barrels from their holdings in the region. The nose is huge and wonderfully expressive of dark red fruits and hints of violet. Plum compote, black cherry and a melange of other dark fruits mix together to create a delicious, full-bodied wine. The texture is rich. The accents of vanilla, spice, and minerals are beguiling and very enticing. Terrific balance. A hedonistic wine that will delight wine lover with a variety of palates.
Ruta Provincial 33
KM 7.5 (M5531)