The Mendoza terroir: Malbec as a place
Three months after meeting Sebastián Zuccardi at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (noted in a previous post), three friends and I jumped the border from Brasil to the Uco Valley of Argentina, just outside Mendoza, dodging rainstorms in a land resembling the high-desert terrain of western Colorado.
Except, that is, for the Andes, looming on a close horizon and towering thousands of feet up.
Despite its modest appearance, Mendoza, which sits at 2,500 feet elevation on the east slope of the Andes, is one of the great wine cities of the world, where even modest restaurants unblinkingly serve world-class Malbecs, Syrahs, Petit Verdots and other varietals.
Malbec is the both the workhorse and the star of the Argentina wine industry, and according to the website Wines of Argentina, the country has 76,600 acres of Malbec vineyards, the most anywhere.
Our first morning found us headed to Bodega Familia Zuccardi in the Uco Valley, where Julia Zuccardi had arranged us a tour.
Julia and her two brothers, Sebastian and Miguel, compose the latest generation of Zuccardis to be involved with a winery established in 1963.
Each has their niche – Sebastian is the winemaker and responsible for the vineyards, Julia does the marketing and tourist development and Miguel has developed the bodega’s compelling olive oil market.
The Uco Valley resembles my home valley in western Colorado: High elevation, semi-arid climate, heavy alluvial soils watered by irrigation, mountains on the horizon – familiar indeed, except for the snow-covered Andes, including the impressive 22,837-foot Aconcagua looming over the region.
Irrigation from Andean snowmelt is key to Mendoza’s agriculture, and 50 years ago Sebastián’s grandfather Alberto Zuccardi developed an irrigation system that soon became a standard of the local wine-making industry.
While the system was a success, Alberto found his true calling in making wine from the grapes he was watering.
Today Zuccardi makes around 20 million liters (about 25 million bottles) a year, most of which is Malbec with smaller bottlings including Bonarda (which Zuccardi and others think may be the Malbec of the future), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranilllo, Torrontes and Chardonnay/Viognier.
One thing a visitor to Mendoza quickly learns is there is no shortage of Malbec in Argentina.
“Everyone in Mendoza makes a Malbec of some sort,” said Zuccardi spokesperson Monserrat Porte, who gave our small group a personal and insightful tour of the Zuccardi winemaking facilities. “What sets Zuccardi apart is its insistence in quality.”
Perhaps a translation is needed, since every winery around the world likes to say it emphasizes quality.
What Porte was responding to was the question, “With so many Malbecs to chose from, and so many that taste similar, what sets Zucccardi apart from the rest?”
Consistent quality, of course, which stems from Sebastián’s belief in the terroir of individual vineyards.
‘I’m always talking about the origins of the grapes,” Sebastián said in Aspen. “Each region, each sub-region offers something different.”
He said walking through the vineyards and tasting the grapes will reveal the individuality of the vines.
“You can taste the individual terroirs and that is what we are promoting,” Sebastián said, waving his hand at the selection of Zuccardi wines near him. “You will notice I am always talking about the origin of the grapes, not just the fact they are Malbec.”
Which also means Malbec is more than a grape: it’s also a place.
“It’s that origin that we must promote to ensure our future.”
Which entails using sustainable and organic agricultural practices, and focusing on micro-climate terroirs in the various vineyards and soils of Maipu and Santa Rosa along the eastern foot of the Andes.
Every wine is estate grown, hand-picked and estate produced in a modern, state-of-the-art facility.
Not too modern, though: Scatttered through the fermentation are several bunker-like concrete fermentation tanks and 10-foot concrete eggs scattered around the winery. So strong is Sebastián’s belief in terroir he uses only local concrete in making the amphora-shaped eggs and the concrete tanks in which he uses to age specific varietals, including Bonarda.
Bodega Zuccardi produces three lines of wines: the premium Zuccardi; Julia (named after Julia Zuccardi); and the Malamado line of fortified wines.