During harvest time in Argentina’s Uco Valley, it’s all about deep purple—the color, not the “Smoke on the Water” rockers. Dark purple-skinned grapes pack the nearly 70,000 acres of vineyards that stretch from Tupungato south to San Carlos, while shades of violet color the lips, teeth and fingernails of the region’s winemakers.
Uco Valley at a Glance
Land Under Vine: Around 70,000 acres
Distance North to South: Approximately 45 miles
Elevation: 2,800 feet to 5,300 feet
Rainfall: Less than 10 inches per year
Main Districts (North to South): Tupungato, Tunuyán, San Carlos
Prominent Zones: Gualtallary, San Pablo, Los Arboles, Los Chacayes IG, Vista Flores, Paraje Altamira IG, La Consulta, El Cepillo
Leading Grape Varieties: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Last Five Vintages: 2018 (outstanding); 2017 (excellent, but with low yields); 2016 (highly challenging, due to El Niño rains); 2015 (marginal, due to cold and late frosts); 2014 (marginal, due to rains at harvest)
That type of wine is no longer in vogue.
“Freedom without fear is our new theme,” says Marcos Fernández, head winemaker at Doña Paula, with palpable pride. As he stood in the winery’s rock-filled vineyard in the Gualtallary district of Tupungato, Fernández said that he and his peers are, in general, harvesting significantly earlier than in the past to corral and preserve natural acidity.
“Relying on vineyards with large alluvial deposits from the omnipresent Andes is the key to producing fresher, more mineral-rich wines,” says Fernández. “We are a younger generation of winemakers, and we are trying to change the perception of quality. We used to believe that more of everything was better—more ripeness, more oak, more alcohol. But along the way, we’ve learned that if you wait too long to pick, you lose that sense of place.”
“The legendary French enologist Émile Peynaud famously said that in Bordeaux, all wines above 13.5% alcohol are similar,” says Roberto de la Mota, one of Mendoza’s most revered winemakers. “For us, the same rule can be applied at 15%.”
A partner in Mendel Wines, de la Mota makes a superb Uco Valley Malbec called Finca Remota, named for the vineyard where it’s grown. The plot was planted in Altamira during the 1950s, back when the Uco Valley was legitimately remote. Now that the Uco Valley has come of age, he and partner Anabelle Sielecki hope to construct a small winery in the Paraje Altamira district near to Zuccardi’s Bodega Piedra Infinita.
“Calcareous soils at nearly [3,600 feet] of elevation? That’s unique to Altamira, and it makes all the difference,” he says.
Uco Then and Now
Known locally as the Valle de Uco despite not being a true valley, the region stretches roughly 45 miles from north to south, and is flanked to the west by the massive Andes. To the east, however, there’s nothing but flatlands and pampas until Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean, around 700 miles away. The best vineyards, those planted over the past two decades and others with even older and deeper roots, push up against the Andes. They benefit from high elevations and cold nights.
As for terroir, the Uco Valley is pure high desert. It receives plentiful water from Andean snowmelt, however, spawning a plethora of flora, while millions of years’ worth of alluvial deposits fill the subsoils from Gualtallary in Tupungato through Los Chacayes in central Tunuyán to aforementioned Paraje Altamira in San Carlos.
Ten years ago, I spent a week touring the Uco Valley. After that trip, I wrote one of the first articles in the mainstream wine press that focused on this rural region, rather than the more established and inhabited winegrowing areas closer to the city of Mendoza.
The Uco Valley was still untapped then, but it was loaded with can-do spirit and the potential to make fresher, more vivacious wines from varieties beyond Malbec, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Back in 2008, the main brick-and-mortar projects in the Uco Valley included a group of seven Bordeaux families who made proprietary wines and a collective bottling called Clos de los Siete, which continues to impress for its quality-to-price ratio.
Other wineries that fueled growth include Bodega Catena Zapata, a leader in high-elevation plantings in Tupungato and a driving force for all of Argentina; Altos Las Hormigas, co-founded by the Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini; and Achaval-Ferrer, a joint-venture between two Argentines and two Italians, including winemaker Roberto Cipresso.
Another that set the pace was a Chacayes-based winery established by Bordelais brothers François and Pierre Lurton. It’s now called Bodega Piedra Negra and run solely by François.
Today, there are even more wineries and vineyards that dot the Uco Valley, with new boutique-size bodegas under construction from the likes of Catena Zapata and Trapiche. Of the 22 wines that Matías Riccitelli currently bottles at his Luján de Cuyo winery, many rely on Uco Valley fruit. In mid-March, Riccitelli was already crushing Malbec from Gualtallary. In the past, he says, the same fruit would have arrived a month later, at a higher brix and therefore less potential for freshness and tension.
“We are working with much lower yields than ever before, so the vines are maturing faster,” says Riccitelli. “The acidity is natural, not added. The combination of sugars, pH levels and acidity can be perfect.”
As the stereo filled his funky bodega with Fela Kuti, Riccitelli explained what he and Gabriela Lombardi, his wife and assistant winemaker, love about the Uco Valley.
“In the early days, meaning 15 to 20 years ago, the creativity came from outside,” he says. “You had Michel Rolland and his Bordeaux friends at Clos de los Siete, Paul Hobbs [from California] at Cobos, and Hans Vinding-Diers [a Dane] with Noemia down in Patagonia. But now the influence is coming more from within. People like us, Seba Zuccardi and the Michelini brothers….we all have an understanding of the terroir and what kinds of wines we want to make.”
“The pendulum is swinging in the direction of wines with nerve and intensity. For that, the Uco Valley is perfect,” says Matías Michelini, one of four Mendoza-born brothers that make numerous wines from vineyards scattered throughout the region. He started his Passionate Wine label in 2009 with just two wines; now, he makes 28. His brothers, Juan Pablo, Gerardo and Gabriel, produce a cross section of new-age Uco Valley wines, including a joint-effort Malbec called SuperUco.
So what’s the current takeaway? For Malbecs and other wines with bright fruit and balance, the Uco Valley is where to look.
From Zuccardi’s Polígonos single-vineyard wines, Riccitelli’s complex Tupungato Chardonnay and Laura Catena’s fledgling Domaine Nico Pinot Noir from the highest reaches of Gualtallary that showcases superb elegance, it’s clear that Uco Valley’s 20-year rise to glory is still going strong.
The Uco Valley’s Best Malbecs
Viña Cobos 2015 Bramare Chañares Estate Malbec (Uco Valley); $115, 96 points. A deep purple color and equally deep aromas of wild berry and blueberry open this lush Malbec from one of Cobos’s newest vineyards in the Valle de Uco. A sensuous palate is dense but balanced, with a bit more freshness than this label is known for. Mocha, chocolate and black-fruit flavors are steady on a smooth finish. Drink this superb Malbec through 2030. Paul Hobbs Selections. Cellar Selection.
Luca 2016 Old Vine Malbec (Uco Valley); $35, 94 points. Pure berry and cassis aromas are concentrated and show no holes. This Uco Valley Malbec feels pure, direct and linear, albeit with slightly scratchy tannins that should dissipate in due time. Blackberry and dry spice flavors finish full and grabby, with muscularity. Drink through 2028. Vine Connections. Cellar Selection.
Zuccardi 2016 Polígonos del Valle de Uco Malbec (Paraje Altamira); $30, 94 points. A saturated dark-purple color and aromas of pure grape juice and stout berry fruits amount to an impressive opening. Blackberry, cassis and natural peppery flavors fill out this cement-fermented-and-aged Malbec from the highest part of Tupungato. A steady, focused finish is clean and powerful, and overall this is a racy muscular wine to drink through 2024. Winesellers, Ltd. Editors’ Choice.
Salentein 2014 El Tomillo Estate Plot Nº 1 Malbec (Paraje Altamira); $50, 93 points. Blackberry, cassis, prune and chocolate aromas make for a ripe wine. This Malbec is full in body, with bright acidity that helps keep its heart rate up. Bold blackberry, cassis, herb and spice flavors are baked and chocolaty across the finish. Overall, this is a complete package, especially for 2014, which was a cold year. Drink through 2026. Palm Bay International. Editors’ Choice.
Doña Paula 2014 Alluvia Parcel Malbec (Tupungato); $100, 92 points. A chalky, stony nose screams of the alluvial rocks that inundate the vineyard from which this comes. Of course, there’s also a lot of berry fruit in the picture. Ripe but energetic on the palate, this tastes of black fruit, coffee and pepper. A firm, classy finish is full and juicy. Drink through 2025. Trinchero Family Estates.
Clos de los Siete 2014 Red (Uco Valley); $20, 90 points. This wine’s bold black fruit aromas are a touch clipped. Its saturated palate offers a massive mouthful of berry fruit and tannins and chocolate notes. On the finish, it’s peppery, toasty and stout. Serve this always reliable Malbec blend with grilled beef in the Argentino style. Thiénot USA.
Domaine Bousquet 2017 Reserve Malbec (Tupungato); $18, 90 points. Unbridled berry aromas display notes of iodine and rubber as this unwinds. The direct palate offers a fresh mouthfeel, while this tastes of mixed black fruits and toast. A lightly blackened finish wraps up this bold Malbec, which contains 5% each Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. WISD LLC.
Matias Riccitelli 2017 The Party Malbec (Uco Valley); $20, 90 points. Natural berry aromas are tight, lean and snappy. This foot-trod and cement-aged Malbec is grabby and solid in feel. Tangy red-plum and currant flavors are a touch salty, while this is as firm, dry, fresh and juicy as Malbec gets across the finish. Elixir Wine Group.