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.