Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In the Glass: 3 Malbecs from Santa Julia, Argentina - Santa Julia [+], Organica and Reserva

Picture: 2010 Santa Julia [+], Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia, Mendoza, Argentina (screw cap, 13% alc., made with 100% sustainably farmed grapes); 2010 Santa Julia Organica, Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia,Mendoza, Argentina (cork, 12,5% alc., made with organic grapes certified by Letis S.A.); 2009, Santa Julia Reserva, Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia, Mendoza, Argentina (cork, 13,5% alc., made with 100% sustainably farmed grapes, aged in French oak for 10 months)

I met Julia Zuccardi recently, when she toured the US to present the new Santa Julia [+] line of wines of the Familia Zuccardi winery. I wrote about it here. This posting focuses on 3 different Malbecs Julia Zuccardi brought along, more specifically: (1) All three wines are made by the Familia Zuccardi Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. I will talk a bit about the producer and Argentina more generally. (2) All three wines are Malbec, which has become the signature grape of Argentina, but originates from Cahors in France. (3) All three wines are “green” wines, one is made with organically grown grapes and two are made following Familia Zuccardi’s principles of sustainable winemaking.

Familia Zuccardi winery in Mendoza, Argentina

The Santa Julia line of wines is the main brand of the Familia Zuccardi winery in Mendoza, Argentina. Argentina has always been a giant wine producer. But historically, Argentine winemakers were more interested in quantity than quality with the country consuming 90% of the wine it produced. For most of the 1900s, Argentina produced more wine than any other country outside Europe, with the vast majority being consumed domestically. Argentine wines started being exported during the 1990s. it is now the second biggest wine exporter in Latin America, following Chile. The devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002, following the economic collapse, further fueled the wine industry.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Argentina

Argentina is the 5th largest producer of wine in the world, following Spain, France, Italy and the US. Like much of the new world, Argentina owes its first vineyards to the Catholic Church. As early as 1556, missionary priests crossed the Andes from the Spanish colony in what is now Chile, to Argentina. The wine industry grew rapidly, as the Spanish and Italian immigrants brought with them the habit of having a bottle of wine with every meal. In the 1920s, Argentina was the 8th richest nation in the world. Domestic wine consumption was as high as 90 liters per person. Yet it is only very recently - perhaps over the last ten or fifteen years - that the wine industry has really begun to develop the methods, attitudes and will to become a serious player in the international wine market.

The Andes Mountains are the dominant geographical feature of Argentine wine regions, with the snow cap mountains often serving as a back drop view in the vineyards. Most of the wine regions are located within the foothills of the Andes. The most important wine regions of the country are located in the provinces of Mendoza and San Juan and La Rioja. Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Aires are also wine producing regions. The Mendoza province produces more than 60% of the Argentine wine and is the source of an even higher percentage of the total exports.

There are many different varieties of grapes cultivated in Argentina, reflecting her many immigrant groups. The French brought Malbec, which makes most of Argentina's best known wines. The backbone of the early Argentine wine industry were the high yielding, pink skin grapes Cereza, Criolla Chica and Criolla Grande which still account for nearly 30% of all vines planted in Argentina today.


Mendoza is the leading producer of wine in Argentina. The vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone is slightly less than half of the entire planted acreage in the US and more than the acreage of New Zealand and Australia combined. Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the average vineyards in Mendoza are planted at altitudes of 1,970-3,610 feet (600-1,100 meters) above sea level. The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winter dormancy.

Familia Zuccardi – The Story

Familia Zuccardi is a family company founded in 1963 by Engineer Alberto Zuccardi. He set up his own irrigation company in 1950 in Mendoza, experimenting with irrigation methods used in California. To illustrate the working of his irrigation system, he planted in 1963 the first vineyard in Maipù - at that time totally desert area. He did the same ten years later in Santa Rosa, half an hour drive from Mendoza. In both cases, the arid, unfertile soil was transformed into a flourishing vineyard. In 1968, he built a winery and started to make his own wine. He was also instrumental in introducing the Italian pergolas system, in Argentina called ‘parral’, in Argentina, for a better canopy management and fruit ripeness.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller and Julia Zuccardi in Washington DC

In 1976, Alberto’s son Jose Alberto joined the family company. He created the Santa Julia brand in the 1980s, named after Jose Alberto’s only daughter Julia, who I had the pleasure to meet and to have lunch with. I was very pleased to sit and talk to her for a couple of hours. In the 1990s, the Santa Julia line was complemented by the Zuccardi line of wines. While the Santa Julia line is an entry level line, the Zuccardi wines are all quality and premium wines. Today, 3 generations are active in the company: the founder Alberto Zuccardi, Julia’s father Jose Alberto, and his 3 children: Sebastian is in charge of the estate the family has in the region of Uco Valley; Miquel went for another product than wine and started to make olive oil; Julia is in charge of the tourism sector of the company, including the new visitor center and the restaurant at the winery.

Familia Zuccardi produces 1.000.000 cases annually, of which 60% is exported. The main export market is Canada, followed by the US (100.000 cases) and Brazil. In total, there are 750 hectares of grapes under cultivation: Maipú 170 Ha; Santa Rosa 473 Ha and Uco Valley 107 Ha.


All 3 wines are Malbec. When people talk about Malbec, at least in the US, they talk about Malbec from Argentina. Indeed, over the course of last 20 years, Malbec has become Argentina's signature grape and Argentina now grows more than 70 percent of the world’s production of that grape. But Cahors in the South West of France is were it all started and were Malbec originates from. April 17th was World Malbec Day and I wrote about its birthplace here.


Cahors wines have a long history. The wine industry was developed by the Romans, who planted vines in Cahors even before they got to Bordeaux. The “black wine” of Cahors reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when they were on the table at the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry II of England in 1152. But Bordelais winemakers saw the Cahors wines as a competitor to their own wines and introduced taxes and levies that hindered Cahors’ export out of Bordeaux, and, in turn, its reputation. In addition, in the late-19th century, phylloxera nearly destroyed the wine business in Cahors. The vines recovered eventually. Things looked pretty bleak until 1971, when Cahors achieved AOC status.

Malbec from Cahor and from Argentina

Malbecs from Cahor and Argentina tend to be strikingly different. Argentina Cahors are a New World style wines - fruity and smooth. The Malbecs from Cahor, on the other hand, tend to be more earthy and leathery, the flavors and textures a bit more rustic and chewy. And yet both Cahors and Argentina always feature Malbec’s essential flavors of cassis and black cherry. One style is not necessarily better than the other; they are just delightfully different. The American consumer, without doubt, favors overwhelmingly the Malbecs from Argentina.

Organic and sustainably Made Wines

The Santa Julia [+] and the Santa Julia Reserva have the Familia Zuccardi’s “Sustainable by Nature” logo on the label, while the third wine is made from organically grown grapes. All the wines belong to the family of what one could call “green” wines. The following tries to shed some light on the different concepts of “green” winemaking.

Organic: Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals. Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

Biodynamic: Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.

Pictures: Julia Zuccardi

Sustainable: Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.

Natural: The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.

Vegan: Vegan refers to the process of fining the wine - eliminating undesirable items - with fining agents made from animal products, such as fish bladders and egg whites. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines. It’s important to note that vegan or vegetarian wines may or may not be made from organic grapes.

Carbon Footprint: The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activites have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

Water Footprint: A new thing is water footprint, reflecting the concern that the planet is moving into a period where water becomes more and more scarce.

Favorable Conditions for Santa Julia Wines in Argentina

Due to the high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions, Argentine vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries. This permits cultivating with little or no pesticides, allowing even organic wines to be easily produced. Argentina, like Chile, is unique in the wine world for the absence of the phylloxera threat that has devastated vineyards across the globe. Unlike Chile, the phylloxera louse is present in Argentina but is a particular weak biotype that doesn't survive long in the soil. Because of this most of the vineyards in Argentina are planted on ungrafted rootstock.

Picture: 2010 Santa Julia [+], Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia, Mendoza, Argentina (screw cap, 13% alc., made with 100% sustainably farmed grapes); 2010 Santa Julia Organica, Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia,Mendoza, Argentina (cork, 12,5% alc., made with organic grapes certified by Letis S.A.); 2009, Santa Julia Reserva, Malbec, Bodega Santa Julia, Mendoza, Argentina (cork, 13,5% alc., made with 100% sustainably farmed grapes, aged in French oak for 10 months)

The Santa Julia [+] Malbec as well as the Santa Julia Reserva are produced in Familia Zuccardi’s “Sustainable By Nature” framework. In this context, the Santa Julia [+] line is using lighter weight glass bottles to lower CO2 emissions (12,5% lighter). Another aspect of the Zuccardi Sustainability By Nature approach is a water recycling program to minimize the water footprint of wine making. It also includes a commitment to organic farming and social programs for the workforce. “We now have a permanent workforce of over 450 people. Workers at Familia Zuccardi are employed year-round and the winery provides subsidized health care and free education to all its workers” said Julia Zuccardi.

The Santa Julia Organica Malbec is produced with 100% organically grown grapes, certified by Letis, S.A.

Schiller Wine - Related Postings

The Wines of Argentina's Cult Winemaker Achaval-Ferrer

Argentinian Wine Removed from Shelves in Germany Because of an Antibiotic in the Wine

World Malbec Day - Malbec from its Birthplace: Cahors in France

Julia Zuccardi from Familia Zuccardi in Argentina Visited the US to Introduce New Santa Julia Wines

The Wines of Chateau La Caminade in the Cahors, France - Malbec from its Birthplace

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