The Mendoza desert can be an unforgiving place. The hardy cacti and thorn trees survive on little more than sand. Limestone and round stones - remnants of rivers which dried-up thousands of years ago - punctuate the landscape. Here, on the gentle slopes of the Uco Valley, the Zuccardi family are betting big on a small region which is producing wines of outstanding beauty.
The Zuccardi family’s journey to the Uco Valley is the culmination of generations of innovation; wine is in their blood, and their winemaking has come to lead the Argentinian pack.
The winemaker’s story centres on a young man. Born in Tucumán, northern Argentina, and an engineer by trade, Alberto Zuccardi packed-up and ventured to Mendoza to try his luck. Today, at the sturdy age of 92, Zuccardi has taken his venture from the winery of a happy gentleman amateur to arguably one of the defining Argentinian winemakers of their time.
Above: Zuccardi at the Uco Valley
The Zuccardi story wasn’t always so glamorous. For years, the family made and sold bulk wines until the early 1980s. Argentina was in the grip of one of its largest viticultural crises, which would see thousands of hectares of vineyards pulled from the chalky soil. Many of these old vines could trace their lineage back to Argentina’s first European colonists.
Of the 50,000 hectares of Malbec planted in the Mendoza at the start of the crises, barely 10,000 hectares survived.
It was an unmanaged disaster for bulk suppliers like Zuccardi. For Alberto, the path ahead was clear - he would stop supplying bulk wines, and instead he would bottle them himself.
It was Alberto’s bold move which would lay the foundation for his son, José Zuccardi, to bring the family’s wines to a wider audience. Today the family company exports 55% of the 2,200,000 cases it produces, while Argentina generates about £307 million from wine exports.
José’s energy and tenacity would bring the family its first taste of major success - but the winemakers took nothing for granted. They were just getting started.
THE THIRD GENERATION
The Zuccardis were making good wine. By the new millennium they were firmly established, but the family’s real leap forward would come with the arrival in 2002 of the third generation. Sebastián, José’s eldest son, would move the family into that undulating and uncharted Uco Valley territory. In doing so, he would dramatically change the family’s portfolio of wines with great effect.
The difference in the wines was immediate. “Nobody needed convincing,” Sebastián recently told Decanter. “The character of the high-altitude grapes spoke for itself, so looking toward that area was natural.”
The higher altitude contrasted sharply with the family’s traditional stronghold in lower climes. The acidity of the fruit. The punch each bottle packed.
The family’s flagship to that point had been the Q line, with Tempranillo from Santa Rosa leading the way. The collection remains magnificent, however the Uco Valley crop demanded new expressions, and the release of Zeta 2002, a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, soon followed.
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,” remarked wine writer Patricio Tapia. Two years after Zeta’s debut, the Zuccardis decided to complement the purchased grapes with their own vineyards in Uco.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The Zuccardi family’s move into the Uco Valley opened up new opportunities to experiment with the challenging soil. The winemaker’s final victory would be in defining a very specific terroir, launching ‘Village’ and ‘Cru’ editions which aim to explore the many sub-regions of Uco through the Malbec grape.
The wines today speak of a sense of place. There is little to no oak. There is, however, an abundance of dedication of forging a collection of wines which stay true to their growing conditions and deliver stimulating, interesting profiles for us to enjoy.
Started in 2007 as the first commercial “micro” brewery to be located in the heart of Speyside. Then, as now, the focus was on making sure that every recipe was as good as it could be. That’s why it wasn’t until 2011 that the first casks arrived. This dedication to excellence was due in large part to co-founder, Managing Director & Head Brewer, David Macdonald.
David was kind enough to give us some of his time to answer our questions
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your brewery?
I’ve always had an affinity to the drinks trade, having been a member of CAMRA and being introduced to the joys of whisky as a student. I entered the Scotch Whisky industry in 2001 after graduating in Chemical Engineering and since then I’ve worked at some of the biggest and best loved distilleries for the world’s biggest drinks companies. I completed the Heriot-Watt MSc in Brewing and Distilling and it was during this time that I founded SVB with my business partner. In my spare time (when I can find it) I enjoy mountain biking, cycle touring, and of course a pint and a nip with my friends!
Spey Valley Brewery was the first commercial microbrewery to be located in the heart of Speyside, creating the finest hand-crafted beers from the same water as Speyside’s world renowned malt whiskies. In early 2016, production moved to a dedicated unit, that has seen Spey Valley Brewery become the largest brewery in the local area.
What encouraged you to get into brewing?
I’ve always been a fan of real ales, I spent a lot of time in Northern England mountain biking and visiting great pubs. Since I’d come up with the name Spey Stout, I decided someone had to make it – why not me?
What do you think attracts people to your beers?
I think people link the beers with the location, and buy into the whole brand, not just the beer - the beautiful scenery and the whisky connection – the Spey Valley and Scotland exports very well, whether to England or the wide world.
Do you create for the market, or is it all towards your own taste?
To begin with, it was all to my own taste – I was a one-man band but I listened to customer feedback (shout out to “Cracking Pint” Colin from Speyside!) and tweaked existing recipes and extended the range. Now we’re operating on a larger scale, the team are happy to be taste testers and have been invaluable in giving me guidance on how to recreate and improve the beers since moving to the new plant. We’re now looking at new recipes and market specific products, that simply weren’t possible on the old equipment.
What makes you unique to other breweries?
Our location – we’re on a farm, with an awe-inspiring view of Ben Rinnes. We’re also quite well connected to our neighbours on the Malt Whisky Trail - would be hard not to be with 16 years’ experience in the industry – and our beers pair well with many drams.
Of your beers, what is your favourite/ what do you think represents you best?
Spey Stout is my favourite – the beer for which the brewery was built. It was named long before it was ever brewed, and was always the aim for the brewery – as good a Stout as could be found anywhere in the world.
What is your personal favourite style of beer?
I tend to drift towards the dark side – Stouts and Porters.
What are your top 3 favourite beers (any brewery/any timeframe) and why?
Motueka - 6°N & Cloudwater Brew Co.
Moose Fang – Beavertown
Spey Stout – well if I can’t make a beer that’s one of my favourites I’m doing something wrong.
Which other working breweries do you rate highly?
There’s so many good breweries now, it’s difficult to handpick favourites. I really love what the guys down at Siren are doing, and Atom have done some really interesting beers as well. We also love our stand neighbours from Craft Beer Revolution, Pilot, who crack us up on Social Media.
What do you think of the current state of Scottish brewing, and what do you think for its future?
It’s an exciting time for Scottish brewing. It’s great to see the industry booming. Although it’s not without its challenges – the more great breweries there are, then the more competition there is. The future promises to be quite exciting – to keep ahead of the game, you have to think a little bit outside of the box.
What has been your biggest challenge and biggest accomplishment since you opened?
The biggest challenge has been building the new brewery – it’s been bigger, taken longer, and taken more out of me that I had ever imagined it would. And it’s still not over! It’s not far away, though… watch this space!
Having said all that, it’s also our biggest accomplishment, as we have a beautiful new brewery in a wonderful location that will become a great tourist attraction for Speyside. It also means we produce a lot more beer, meaning many more people can enjoy it up and down the country.
What is next for the brewery?
We’re very excited about 2017, and look forward to growing into our new brewery, getting the Spey Valley Brewery name out across Scotland, the UK and the World!
Where can people contact you?