The Uco Valley lies at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentina. In this region, the Zuccardi family has been making site-focused wines for three generations.
On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Adam Teeter is joined by third-generation winemaker Sebastián Zuccardi to talk about the history of Zuccardi Wines, how the region’s winemakers are telling stories of land through wine, and how Argentina is pushing boundaries to establish itself as a winemaking country to take note of.
Tune in, and learn more about Zuccardi Wines at https://zuccardiwines.com/en/.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter. This is a special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” where I’m talking with Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker of Zuccardi in Argentina. Sebastián, thanks for joining me.
Sebastián Zuccardi: Thank you, Adam, for the invitation.
A: First of all, it’s awesome to actually have you in the studio in New York. You’re the first real guest we’ve had post-Covid, so thank you very much for being here. It’s surreal to not be talking to you through a computer.
S: Yes. It’s my first trip after the pandemic, too.
A: Wow. How are things in Argentina?
S: Things are good. Springtime is coming, so the weather is warming up. We’re outside a little bit more now.
A: Before we jump in, for those who may not be familiar with Zuccardi, can you tell us a little bit about the history of the winery and the wines that you make?
S: Yes, of course. I’m the third generation in the family making wine. My grandfather started in ’63 in Mendoza. My grandfather didn’t have any relationship with wine at the time. He had a building company. Where we live is a desert. It’s a desert that you can cultivate with other irrigation. At his building company, he developed a very efficient irrigation system at the time. He bought a piece of land and had the idea to make a showroom to show how his irrigation system worked. Luckily for me, he fell in love with agriculture. He decided to continue planting vineyards. He was very special. He was a philosopher. All the time, he was thinking about the desert. When I was a child and I went to the vineyards, we would go to the limit between the vineyard and the desert. In the middle of the vineyard, he left a big part that was not cultivated so that people who worked in the vineyard remembered how the land was before we started cultivating.
A: Oh, that’s amazing.
S: My father decided to put his life into wine. He is very passionate. He has wine in his veins. It was a big growth for our family, and it’s now the third generation. Luckily, the three of us in the third generation joined the family business, but we’re developing new things for the family. My brother makes olive oil. He’s the best producer of olive oil in the country. It’s a traditional activity in the area to make it, but my family didn’t produce any before Miguel started. Julia runs hospitality for the family, because we have two wineries and three restaurants. I joined the wine area. My family used to cultivate in lower-altitude areas, and I pushed them to cultivate in the Uco Valley. It’s the highest valley in Mendoza. My job is continuing what the family has been doing, but in a different way.
A: Why did you push to go to the Uco Valley?
S: I think the magic in our area is in this mountain. We make mountain wines. Everything that happens in our area is in relationship to the mountain, from the weather conditions, the water that we use to irrigate, and the soils. Also, our customer vision is that we are a mountain people. Everything is in the relationship with the mountain. If we want to make mountain wines, we need to cultivate closer to the mountain. The Uco Valley has a lot of energy and magic and very special distinctions that you can feel in the wines.
A: Wow. So, in terms of the wines that you make at Zuccardi, are there specific wines that you’ve become known for? When most people hear Argentina, they think of Malbec. Is it a wide variety of wines that you’re cultivating? What are you cultivating, specifically, close to the mountain in the Uco Valley?
S: The Uco Valley is a very special place because the mountain, the Andes, isolates us from any ocean influence. We live in a very continental kind of weather, but at high altitude. The high altitude gives us cooler weather. We have a conditioning climate that has cooler weather with sunlight. In general, when you think of cold areas, you think of places that are cloudy and wet. We cultivate in cold areas, but with sunlight. This is one of the things that, for me, is very important. The second thing is that the soils where we are cultivating are alluvial soils. Millions of years ago, we had big glaciers in the mountain. Then, the Earth heated. All these glaciers melted and the water came from the Andes to the flat area. The soils where our vines are grown is made of material that was in the mountain millions of years ago. The altitude and the soils give us a lot of diversity in the Uco Valley. First, there’s the altitude. You can move from 900 meters to 1,700 meters in altitude in only 20 kilometers of distance. This means you can have different climate conditions in very short distances. The second thing is the soils. The Andes Mountain is very diverse in geology. We have materials that are difficult to find in other places. You don’t usually see that in other places in the world. This happens because of the origin of the material and the origin of the Andes Mountain. The alluvial soils are also very strong and very disorganized, so you have a lot of variation. The soil changes from one village to the other, but also inside of your property. We have a valley close to the mountain, where the mountain is the big influence, and there’s a lot of diversity.
A: Interesting. With that diversity, what grapes are you planting?
S: I believe that the most important thing is the place. The grape is the vehicle to express the place. My biggest interest is talking about places, but I believe that Malbec is the best vehicle to express our region. Why? There’s two things. First, Malbec is not a marketing plan. No one said, “Let’s plant Malbec because nobody’s planting Malbec.” Malbec was something that happened naturally in the field. The wine started in Argentina, with immigration from Italy and Spain. We are more Old World than New World. That viticulture has grapes from Spain, Italy, and France. As I look at the field, taste the grapes, and walk the vineyards, they continue planting and replanting Malbec. Not only that, but they’re also improving the material that we have. Malbec is part of our history. For me, it’s like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Sangiovese in Tuscany, or Nebbiolo in Barolo. The second thing is that these grapes are very transparent to the place. When you cultivate Malbec in different villages in the Uco Valley, you have completely different expressions. For me, the adaptation is so good to the place, that it’s transparent to the place. The place is in front.
A: So, there’s a huge opportunity then, to do single-vineyard wines and terroir-focused wines with Malbec in the Uco Valley. You do this with Zuccardi, correct?
S: Yes. I made two very good decisions in my professional life. Well, I think I made more.
A: The two that are very clear.
S: Yes. At that time, I was not very conscious of it, but today I’m very conscious. The first was, when I finished secondary school, I decided to study agronomy. At that time, the main important person in the winery was the oenologist. I decided to study agronomy because I grew up in the vineyards with my grandfather and my father, so I want to be there in the vineyard. That decision, now, makes a lot of sense, because I believe that the wines that I’m making are wines that come from the vineyard. I don’t think that we make wines. We cultivate wines. This is the main thing. The second thing is that, when I finished university, I decided to travel. I decided to do the harvest with my family and go do the harvest in the Northern Hemisphere. For seven years, I had the opportunity to work in France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Working there, I really realized the role of the sense of place. I came back to my family and I said, “OK, we need to explore our areas more and we need to make wines that talk about the place. We need to make wines that can really transport people to the place. This has been the way for us, and this is what we are doing today.
A: That’s really cool. In terms of the evolution of Zuccardi, how much has it grown since your grandfather started it to now?
S: We have been growing a lot, but we’ve also divided the projects. We have Zuccardi, our main winery and brand. We also have Santa Julia. The biggest growth has been in knowledge and in philosophy. Today, in the Uco Valley, we have seven vineyards in seven different places. We’ve been working to have a very deep knowledge about the places where we are cultivating. I told you about the way that the soils were formed and how they create a lot of diversity. A single vineyard can have 20 to 25 different kinds of soils. Our work has been to very deeply understand the characteristics of the place, trying to divide our vineyards, and vinifying all parts separately. The winery that we have in the Uco Valley, I like to say that we built it with our legs in the vineyard. All this work that we started doing to divide our properties made it so that the winery was prepared for this diversity. We built a winery that has 100 percent concrete vats. With the size, to prepare for the division that we have in the vineyard, we have 1,000-, 2,000-, 3,000-, 5,000-, and 7,500-liter sizes.
A: Why concrete vats?
S: If I want to make wines that talk about the place, I need to respect the characteristics of the place. I’m not looking for perfect wines. I’m looking for wines that have the uniqueness of the place and match our philosophy as a family cultivating there. I feel that concrete is very respectful because it doesn’t give any flavor or any taste to the wine. We work with raw concrete. There’s no epoxy inside.
A: Nothing? t’s just raw concrete?
S: Yes. Concrete also has less micro-oxygenation than, for example, a barrel, And I feel Malbec is a grape that is extremely sensitive to micro-oxygenation. You can make great wine in concrete. You can make a great wine in a barrel. You can make a great wine in stainless steel. You can also make a very bad wine in concrete, in a barrel, and in stainless steel. The main important thing is the place where you’re cultivating and how you cultivate. I feel that concrete is a material that is extremely pure and allows us to express the place. The interesting thing is that we made our concrete vats with sand, water, and stone from our vineyard. There’s a very strong connection between the place where we cultivate and the winery.
A: Oh, that’s cool. When you make the wines, you vinify them in the concrete and then age them in the concrete as well, right?
S: In general, we vinify 100 percent in concrete, and then we age in concrete. We do this with the Malbec, for example. With Cabernet Franc, another grape that we cultivate, I like to age in big casks. Depending on the wine and what I’m looking for, that’s what we do. I think that concrete is a very good material to use. To make wines, you need to do an intervention. We don’t make the wines alone. Things are important both in the vineyard and in the winery. We cultivate the vineyard, make decisions in the vineyard, and then we make the wine.
A: You don’t just crush the grapes and walk away.
S: No. I think when you leave the vines’ growth alone, it’s a disaster. The vines need people who are working beside them in the vineyard. You don’t decide anything in the vineyard. You have to take care based on what the nature will do. We have to be very obedient in the vineyard. Then, in the winery, we have to make wine. If you leave it alone, we’ll finish it and it may be a disaster. In order to make wines that are not as impacted by our hands, we need to know more about our place and we need to work more. If you work less or have less knowledge, you’ll make a disaster. My challenge in the wines that we make is that we have to choose very good places. We have to do very precise viticulture. Then, in the winery, we have to make wines that express the place. We are very careful in the winery to take care of that. I try to avoid over-ripeness, over-extraction, and over-oaking because, for me, when you have these three things, you lose sense of place.
A: Right. You don’t taste the actual fruit in the way the fruit was meant to be tasted. In the same way, if you were to have other characteristics that would come in, whether that be Brettanomyces or things like that, you would also lose the characteristics.
S: Our concept is trying to put the landscape in a bottle. The landscape will not put itself in the bottle alone. So, the philosophy that we have is very, very important. Today, in the new vineyards, I’m leaving 30 percent of native vegetation in the vineyards. I believe that I need to take a whole picture of the place, and natural vegetation gives a lot of information to the grapes. You have a lot of aromas that can come from the native vegetation. This is the way that we are working today.
A: Amazing. In these seven vineyards in the Uco Valley, how many wines are you making from these seven vineyards?
S: I make a lot of wine. The system that I have when I work is that, every time that I go up, I try to get more specific about the place. I have a wine that can talk about the Uco Valley. Then, I go one step more, and I have wines that talk about the villages. Then, I go one step more, and I talk about wines that come from parajes, small areas inside villages. Then, I go up to finca wines, also known as single vineyard. We have a beautiful word, finca, that means single vineyard. Then, we move to parcelas, to specific kinds of soils.
A: Oh, wow. That’s a lot of wines.
S: Yes, but it’s because we are building and looking at specific sites. I want to try to take a specific picture of one kind of soil in one property.
A: Wow. That’s really amazing. Besides Malbec, are there other grapes that you’re cultivating in the Uco Valley that you feel are also really amazing representatives for the place, or things that you’re really passionate about?
S: Yes. When I think about what is coming after Malbec, in my view, it’s more Malbec. However, this is Malbec that is talking or expressing through the places.
S: I think we have to be careful not to just look for other grapes after Malbec. At the end of the day, we have to try to do the best that we can in our region. If we are trying to change the grape all the time, we’re moving in a fashion movement. We need to move in a classic movement. I’m not saying old. I’m saying classic is the best that you can do in your region. Talking about grapes, I do think a Chardonnay in the high altitude areas works very well. We can make very good mountain white wines. If we see the mountain and put all our energy into making whites that talk about this mountain, I think Chardonnay is a good grape to do that with. Also, Cabernet Franc is a grape that is working very well. When you walk the vineyards, you can see the adaptation that Cabernet Franc has to our weather. Then, there are two grapes that, for me, are part of our history. One is Torrontés. It really shows the uniqueness of being from Argentina because it’s a cross that happened between Listán Prieto and Muscat of Alexandria. It’s our native grape that has a very strong relationship with the north of Argentina. When you cultivate it in the Uco Valley, you can see that very interesting things happen. The other is Bonarda. It is the second most planted grape in Argentina, after Malbec. It’s interesting because it’s part of the history and part of what happened with that generation of viticulture. For me, though, I’m not thinking that we have to look for something to come next after Malbec. We need to concentrate in places.
A: When you concentrate in places, do you think that is how you ultimately truly establish a region as a fine-wine region? In the same way that Barolo concentrates in places, as does Bordeaux, and parts of Napa now, is that the key to taking the region from being a place of great wines to a place of super-fine wines?
S: I think yes. I think the future is in the places. We have to be careful to not try to copy any model. Every place is different. When you go to Burgundy, the division is different than when you go to our vineyards. When you go to our vineyards, the diversity that you have in the same property means that you can’t classify one vineyard like a grand cru. You need to classify inside of the same vineyard. So, we need to think in our own way to divide. For me, the first step that is happening — and this is not something that I’m doing alone, as we are working with many producers — is talking and making the geographic identification. This includes dividing our place and dividing our valley by places. The wines that come from these places and the grapes that are being sourced from these places, you can put the name of the place on those labels. One thing that I am sure of is that we have nothing to envy in terms of the potential of the place. The place has energy and uniqueness. Now, we need to take time to analyze and study our place. Then, we need time to bring it to the market and do an analysis about what we are doing. I believe, first, in the potential of the place. Second, today you have a generation of people that are thinking in this way. They’re thinking in place and thinking in terroir. It’s a matter of time for me.
A: Wow. Amazing. In terms of thinking in place, at Zuccardi, you also think in terms of the people. How do you think, when you’re coming to create the wines, the treatment of the people and the way that you interact with the people who are involved in Zuccardi impacts the overall wine?
S: You know, wine is all about place and people. It’s impossible to separate. I will never choose a wine only for the place. I always choose the wine for the place and who makes the wine. If you make great wines, you need great people working in the vineyard and in the winery. We work on this a lot because we believe that is the only way to make great wines. Especially in Argentina, in the areas where we have our vineyards, they are located far away from every place. You need to create conditions that the people who work in your vineyards can develop in. It’s because of that that we have a foundation that my sister runs. We do many things in order for our people to improve so they can continue working and studying in our places. That is because I believe that the only way to make great wines is with great people in the vineyards and in the winery.
A: If you look at Argentina as a whole — not just Uco Valley, but as a whole — where do you think the future of Argentinean wine is headed? Is it more about place now? Are there other places in Argentina besides Mendoza and the Uco Valley that you think are really exciting right now or that your family is getting excited about or thinking about?
S: I believe that the future is in places, but Argentina is much more than the Uco Valley. We were talking about the Uco Valley because it’s the place where I’m cultivating. I’m not interested in cultivating in another place because my feeling is that I don’t want to snorkel. I want to dive.
A: Yeah. You want to go deep instead of staying on the rocks.
S: Yes. I think if you want to go deep with a vineyard, you need to sleep near the vineyard and have an everyday relationship with the vineyard. I don’t want to cultivate in many areas. I want to be very knowledgeable about the place where I am cultivating. Arriving at the top level involves a lot of details and a lot of precision. Talking about Argentina more generally, I think there are a couple of very interesting things happening. First, the limits are moving. In the north, we are cultivating farther north than before. We are arriving to places and altitudes that, before, were not expected. When you see the south, we are moving more southern. Some projects are also going to the east and to the coast. In some vineyards in our area, we are cultivating higher. I feel that the limits are stretching. This is a nice movement. The other nice movement is different styles. You have a lot of diversity today in the wines that we are making in Argentina. I believe that wine is diversity. It is the opposite of homogeneous things. We need diversity. Today, you have a big amount of diversity in terms of terroir and also in terms of what people are trying to do. The third movement that, for me, is very interesting, is white wines. For many years, we were very focused on red. We thought that our country was a red wine country. Today, we can see that when we go to the south, the north, or closer to the mountain, we have conditions to make very interesting whites. These three things are moving Argentina wine further today.
A: All of this comes together to continue to move Argentina into a much more premium wine position than it has been in the past.
S: Yes, but it’s a matter of time. Nobody alone can put Argentina on the map. We need growers to work together. A region is much more than one producer. It’s impossible for one producer to build the image of the country. We need to share, and then we can go to the market and compete. First, we need to share. We must go out to communicate all together. I believe this is happening today. I believe we are also showing that the potential of the wines that we are making are unique from other areas. I believe it will happen. It will happen because it’s true. It will happen because we have great places. We have people working in these places and looking to make wines that talk about these places. I’m positive about this. I think that it’s a matter of time.
A: Amazing. Well, Sebastian, thank you so much for taking the time to join me today and talk to me more about Zuccardi. Your passion for the wine of Argentina, and especially of the Uco Valley, is great. It has been really interesting to spend some time with you and learn more.
S: Thank you very much.
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Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.