It was a little after sunrise and we hadn't had our cafecito yet - five of us, sitting in silence, bundled up and crammed into our small rental SUV. Our location, "the dot,' disappeared, yet again, after several U-turns. This particularly chilly morning in Mendoza wasn't off to a great start for us touristas, but we kept going - on the horizon the cotton candy-colored sky lit the Andes Mountains and pushed us to go on.
Approaching the Andes was like watching the stages of a painting being finished; a live Bob Ross session. Rigid shapes and shadows and what looked like brush strokes began to appear in the slopes. We took each new detail as a good sign we were headed in the right direction.
We were on a mission to get to Bodega Zuccardi in the Valle de Uco - a winery we hold dear to our hearts here at the shop. The vineyard is located in the southern part of the Mendoza Province of Argentina, in a region called Altamira. Alberto Zuccardi and his family were one of the many thousands who immigrated to Argentina in the early 20th century. Although Alberto’s trade was engineering, he was drawn to the vineyards in Mendoza where he experimented with grape growing, irrigation systems, and vine trellis systems (the overhead vine pergola he designed is still used to this day). In 1963, he founded their first vineyard in Maipu and from there have become most prominent names in wine innovation throughout Argentina. Three generations have shared their passion for the family business from growing to winemaking to exporting to restauranteering. Strong family ties have been they key to their success, making them the largest family-owned winery in Argentina.
We zig-zagged through miles of vineyards and houses until we saw what looked like a spaceship rising from the vines. The juxtaposition of this modern art installation against the mountainous backdrop surrounded by these perfectly organized rows of grapevines felt like we had stumbled upon a new planet.
We were greeted by Deborah, our lovely guide to all things Zuccardi for the day, who stood in front of the winery among the cacti and a peaceful trickling pond. She led us through the grand front doors that stood out among the modern shapes of the winery as an art nouveau anomaly, featuring wired vines twisting beautifully around the frame. Presented as a gift, the doors were crafted by the famous local sculptor Roberto Rosas to Emma Zuccardi, the matriarch and creative director of the Zuccardi family, as a safeguard to the bodega. It felt like Emma herself was warmly greeting us. Incidentally, Emma is the name behind a beloved bottle of Bonarda you've probably seen in Grand Cata.
Through the doors we were taken back into the sleek, modern vestibule of the winery, again feeling like the inside the mothership. The grey tones, slate, and pops of white took your mind back to the color palette of the Andes, which were in full view through the enormous restaurant and lobby windows and glowed in the morning sun.
As we enjoyed the view by the fire, Deborah brought to light the intrinsic theme of this winery: “Piedra” or “Stone.” Inspired by famed Argentine writer Jorge E. Ramponi’s 1942 poem, “Piedra Infinita”, Ramponi compares stone and man: strong, complex and beautiful products of nature. However, stone is literally a perfectly compressed history of resistance; man is flesh, blood and, although allowed to put up a fight, temporary. It is essential for man to succumb to the powers of nature (in this case the Andes), practice humility, and create a harmonious relationship with his surroundings.
In lieu of the philosophy behind "Piedra Infinita," the Zuccardi family pays respect to the mountains by sourcing all materials locally; whether it is locally made concrete for the building itself or using water and sand from the Tunyan River in the winery. The vineyard is also dry-farmed, only using run-off moisture from the Andes. Their restaurant, Piedra Cocina, also uses only locally produced products of the Mendoza Province. In addition, Sebastian Zuccardi, one of the sons of the Zuccardi family and head of this project, highlights how they employ people year-round and put an emphasis on hiring local workers instead of using machines whenever possible. The Zuccardi family has given this terroir a voice through their architecture, food, people, and, of course, their wines.
Deborah then brought our group outside for a stroll through the vineyard. It was the beginning of July, which means it’s pruning season for most of the southern hemisphere, as it is their winter. During this winter dormancy period, the leaves fall and the vine stores its reserves of carbohydrates in its roots. Vineyard hands then prune the woody shoots and dead stems during this recharge period for optimal, healthy bud growth for growing season. Although it’s not the most picturesque time to see a vineyard, it was a great way to see the vine training techniques.
We approached a row with two excavations, or “calicatas”, dug out, about 5 ft deep. One had exposed granite stone, which can produce wines with delicate aromas and higher acidity on the palette because of more porous quartz content, making it easier for nutrients to feed the deeper-rooted vines. Four meters to the right, the other calicata contains just mostly dense, calcareous clay soils, which produce fuller, robust wines. The clay soil also retains water, which can be a savior during Mendoza’s desert-like heat. It was incredible to see just how closely situated these diverse terroirs co-coexisted with one another.
Sidenote: I know, I’m writing about Argentina and I haven’t even mentioned Malbec. It’s on purpose. Although grape varietal is very important, it is essential to change the way we think about how we categorize wine. Grapes are highly influenced by their surroundings and the ground in which they derive from. A Malbec from one side of the the vineyard can taste different from a Malbec grown in another area with different soil. Many of the Zuccardi’s wine labels do not have the varietals listed because they aim to make vineyard-specific wines rather than varietal.
Geologically, “stone” is a word that encapsulates many types of mineral solids whether they are large pieces of mineral or many types of sediments compressed together. Bodega Zuccardi intricately divides their plots of vines precisely on what rocks they are dealing with; so, as you can imagine, an aerial layout of their estate looks like a tectonic jigsaw puzzle! Across the 300 hectares of Zucccardi’s seven estates in Uco Valley, they tend to over 60 soil and rock compositions.
After I almost fell in a calicata, we headed inside to the actual winemaking facility, which felt more like a modern art museum than anything. At the entrance we were greeted by a quote from “Piedra Infinita,” a reminder of what we were about to walk into – many representations of stone. We made our way through the sleek, narrow hall and that opened up into a cold, concrete sanctuary. Enormous concrete eggs were lined up in rows, all filled with a different juice. Why concrete instead of stainless steel? Concrete is more porous, allowing for micro-oxidation (healthy amounts of air for the wine to breathe), which allows more flavors and complex textures to develop. It also maintains a cool temperature during fermentation and aging (American spelling), which is essential. Another way the Zuccardis adhere to this natural method is by orchestrating a full gravity-fed winemaking facility. This means no pumps, no machines: all pushdowns are done by hand to properly mix the grapes during fermentation.
We then made our way into the cellar, the heart of the property. It was a circular room, the round walls lined with copious amounts of bottles. In the center stood a large stone in a spotlight. This room, although cold and quiet, felt alive as if the entire Zuccardi family was there, each member represented by a bottle: a family portrait with a killer background. We walked up the spiral staircase that hugged to the cellar into the tasting room. If we were still thinking of this place as a spaceship, this room would be the control room.
For the end of our visit, Deborah sat us down for a tasting of, well, I may have lost count of how many bottles of wine. We tried everything from stunningly floral Torrontes to the deepest, spiciest blends of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon to the most delicate Pinot Noir I believe I have ever tasted. Each wine had stunning minerality and, because of Valle de Uco’s high altitude level, fresh aromatics.
With the Andes in the distance lighting up the room, we sat around the table, drank, laughed, and listened to Deborah tell the story behind each bottle she opened. Every wine represented a different part of the Zuccardi legacy. This was the moment it all came together. These wines were a cohesive, sentimental masterpiece that represented an intricate ecosystem of family and nature.