The Uco Valley, Argentina: Where The Past Meets The Future

The The Uco Valley resides in Argentina. A country surrounded by myriad veils of romance, hardship and mystery, can be summed up with ‘The Three M’s’; Messi, Malbec and Mismanagement.


I gather that Messi is a footballer and that’s a subject about which I know the square root of nothing. When it comes to mismanagement, if you were to look at my finances you would rightly assume I have a grasp of the subject. However, I don’t write about politics or economics, they’re not my fields. My field is wine, and Malbec (and the Uco Valley) is something I happen to know a little bit about. I was once described as one of the UK’s leading experts on the variety. It’s a description I wrote but that still counts.

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I have been travelling to Argentina regularly since 2012 and have been fortunate to travel widely around the country. The reasons for my visits are twofold; firstly my wife is from the town of San Martin, not far from the city of Mendoza, and secondly because I have a deep held passion for anything to do with wine. Except rosé, I can’t bear the stuff. That’s not a conversation for right now though. A minor claim to fame I hold is that, as far as I can discover, I am the only Englishman to have married in the town of San Martin. But I digress. 

I would argue that we can add a Fourth M to Argentina: Mendoza. Argentina is divided into 23 provinces, each named after the largest city contained within. When it comes to wine, Mendoza province is by far and away the most important. Argentina has just under 200,000 hectares planted to the vine. 75% of these lie within Mendoza, a province in the mid west of the country at the base of the majestic Andes Mountains. In an effort to give you the impression I possess some culture I will now misquote some Shakespeare: 

“Some wine regions are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Finca Agostino in Maipú, Mendoza. Find the winery on VIND map.

It’s fair to say that Mendoza sits somewhere in between achieving greatness and having it thrust upon’t. Because I ‘specialise’ in Argentina, I am well versed in its vinous history. I don’t wish to give you a history lesson, however to give the region a wider global context, it is important. The grapevine found its way into Argentina in the 1550s and Mendoza quickly became the focal point for production. Historically Argentina’s wine production was fairly industrial; by the 1970s Argentines consumed 90 litres of wine per capita. In the same time period the British consumed a paltry 3 litres. But we were drinking Blue Nun so I’m not sure who was better off. It was not until a devastating economic crash in 2001, and the following foreign investment, that Argentina really began to be taken ‘seriously’ on the global stage. 

Once a wine region is taken seriously, everyone with an interest wants to dive deeply into the minutiae and explore it down to the last stone. Mendoza can be broadly broken down into 3 regions, each of which contain smaller, more defined areas. Historically, the most important was the Luján de Cuyo. The first geographically defined wine region in South America, it is the place where Malbec was first properly cultivated. It still remains a hotbed of old vine, concentrated and classy wines and is home to some of the country’s best known producers.

But it is the Uco Valley that has become the focal point for quality and expression. It’s fair to say the Uco is now the cool kid on the block. I usually stay away from something when it becomes cool, but with the Uco that is something I cannot do. I suppose I associate ‘coolness’ with a level of commercial popularity from which I wish to distance myself. It’s my punk, outsider heart showing but this isn’t about my clearly much-needed therapy. I have been privileged in my life and career to travel to a wide variety of countries and wine regions, but the one that most takes my breath away is the Uco Valley.

Domaine Bousquet - the family hail from the city of Carcassonne, in the south of France and have 4 generations of history in the winemaking tradition. Their passion "is to produce organic wines of superior quality and this is what lead us to Argentina to begin a new chapter." A 1990 vacation in Argentina was all it took. For third-generation winemaker Jean Bousquet, it was love at first sight.

It is said (when it comes to wine) that the French have attitude and the Argentines have altitude. I would argue that Argentines have their fair share of the former too. They must, because to plant and maintain vines in the Uco is a vast undertaking. In fact, the region was not particularly widely planted or recognised until Nicolas Catena planted his Adrianna Vineyard in the early 1990s. He wanted somewhere cooler (I’m talking about temperature now); a place where vines could develop more slowly and have time to rest during the night. He was the first producer in Argentina to pursue a more European style, or perhaps better to say a more European balance. The Adrianna Vineyard is in Gualtallary, a sub region of the Uco. It sits at nearly 5,000 feet above sea level (f.a.s.l.) Bear in mind that Argentina doesn’t have the best road network. Getting to Gualtallary, even today, is quite a trek. When you then consider the work that goes into maintaining a vineyard, choosing to plant here seems like utter madness (a field in which I am also well versed.)

These weren’t the first vines planted in the Uco but they were the first to really visit the potential of altitude. This was the key factor in Nicolas Catena’s choice. Geology and soil came later. The Uco has a history of fruit and veg production, so crops have long been grown here, at least since the Jesuits arrived in the later 16th century. Vines were first planted in San Carlos (one the 3 main regions into which Uco is divided) in 1900. By 1922, there were 16 wineries. But it was Catena and his Adrianna Vineyard that truly broke new ground and introduced the potential and possibilities of Mendocinian wine.

The Adrianna Vineyard wines quickly became recognised as something very special. They possessed an elegance and finesse not really seen in Argentina before. It was realised that the Uco is the place to be. When the great names like Rolland, Lurton and Rothschild looked to establish wineries in Argentina, they went straight for the Uco.

But what makes it so special? Uco’s altitude ranges between 2,800 f.a.s.l. to 5,000 f.a.s.l. The summer temperature here is warm rather than hot. It becomes very cool at night, often below zero. These gentle but wide temperature swings allow grapes to develop slowly and preserve attributes like acidity. Sugar builds more slowly, so it’s easier to control alcohol. Also, at altitude there is a greater concentration of UV light. This aids in the development of thicker skins with finer tannins, deeper colour…it’s a paradise for grape growing. That all got a bit technical and I’ll put a stop to that.

Antigal Winery cellar

Antigal is one of the oldest wineries in the region dating from 1897. Enjoy the restaurant, tasting or tours.

Heading south from Mendoza city, one drives on the Ruta 40. Heading through the Luján de Cuyo, you slowly travel back in time. This time travel is partly geological but is reinforced by the condition of the vehicles with which you share the road.

One of my favourite games when driving in Argentina is to capture photos of these strange and barely held together vehicles. Not to mock or disparage in any way, but to marvel at the resilience and fortitude of those who make the country so great. 

These vehicles represent the spirit of Argentina. A country that is not in the greatest position economically or socially but that keeps trying to move forward and better itself. It is not uncommon at harvest time to see flatbed trucks filled with cosechadores (pickers). They sit in the flatbed, often drinking mate, a traditional South American tea, while the vehicle travels 100km/h+…obviously without any form of seatbelt or other life saving device.

Once you’re in the Uco true, which takes around a couple of hours from the city, you’re in a different world. The mountains surround you like silent guardians. You are so close to them; it feels as if you could reach out your hand and scoop snow from the tops. They’re never imposing though, they just stand so beautifully. Endless contours and textures capture the eye, and the heart, and you can easily lose yourself to history. The mountains were formed in the Eocene period. 50 million years ago volcanoes and earthquakes pushed the seabed high into the air, forming these mountains. Through the ages, they took greater form through ice age deposits and the carving effect of the Tunuyán river.

You’re standing on ancient ground. It feels like the hustle and bustle of city life is not only far away in distance, but also in time. You won’t get much mobile phone signal here. And it’s beautiful. Like the last bastion of solitude. It’s not just peaceful in the Uco, it’s pure. The air is clean, the breeze is fresh and untroubled by pollution. This is a place of freedom. It’s no surprise the vine thrives here. I often lose myself in the beauty of wine but when I’m in the Uco I lose myself in a deeper way. I hold rocks in my hand that form part of these unique vineyards and I can’t help but imagine what history these rocks possess. 

The Uco itself divides and sub divides into smaller and smaller areas, each with its own distinct features; features that are borne out in the wines. It’s this finesse, and nuance, that Nicolas Catena was striving for. He found it. This is where the future comes in, and we also return to one of the original ‘Three M’s’, Malbec. We think of Malbec as a full bodied, richly black fruited wine, often with toast and spice character. Oh, it’s so much more than this.

Malbec is capable of communicating a great deal more than we’ve understood before. As knowledge of the many sub regions becomes greater, Malbec is starting to reveal greater depths of its own personality. Like a teenager discovering their favourite band or artist, Malbec is starting to come to life and really show its personality. This is what makes a trip to the Uco so worthwhile. Not just the incredible surroundings and scenery, but the opportunity to explore Malbec and its many facets. Taste and spot the differences between Paraje Altamira and Gualtallary. When you taste and you see simultaneously, wine, and its beauty, become so much clearer.

There are many great producers in the Uco Valley but a visit to Zuccardi’s Piedra Infinita vineyard and winery in Paraje Altamira is an absolute must. Winner of the World’s Best Vineyard award, this winery is built entirely from material found in the area. It almost camouflages itself into the mountains. Here, winemaker Sebastién Zuccardi has truly pioneered understanding of soil and earth. In the vineyards outside are 6 foot trenches so you can climb down into the ground itself and understand why this geological history is so important as well as beautiful. 

The Uco Valley divides into 3 primary areas, each of which breaks down further. There are a total of 29 sub regions across the whole Uco.  It’s a bit like Burgundy but without the Napoleonic laws of inheritance or price tag. I’d also argue the wines are more reliable too (don’t worry, I am a huge Burgundy fan). The furthest north of the 3 primary regions is Tupungato. Gualtallary is in Tupungato and it’s here that Adrianna is located. South of here is Tunuyán, home to Los Árboles and Vista Flores. Finally, furthest south and sitting on the tip of the ancient alluvial cone (come on, we all love some rock chat) is San Carlos. Here you will find La Consulta and Paraje Altamira; two of the most admired sub regions in the whole country.

As I head back to the city from a day in Uco, I hold my piece of contraband (I always grab a rock to keep) and wonder at how much history has passed by the Uco Valley and where the future will take the glorious wines produced here.

Remember: It’s just grapes.

See other articles on South Africa and Sancerre in the Journal Section.