The Sky-High Winery That Shouldn’t Work, but Does | OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this is not your average Mendoza malbec.

Uspallata, Argentina, population 3,437, is a shabby high-altitude hamlet where truck drivers bound for Chile wolf down greasy schnitzels and soldiers from the nearby army barracks gather around tables laden with 34-ounce beer bottles and bowls of peanuts. It’s definitely not wine country. Surrounded by parched red slopes and not far from Mount Aconcagua (the highest peak outside of Asia), it’s nothing like the gentrified winemaking valleys that surround the provincial capital of Mendoza. 

Fotografias Viñedos Uspallata Cosecha-2

This high-altitude vineyard is nothing like the green winemaking valleys in Mendoza.

Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

Except the folks from Estancia Uspallata don’t seem to have gotten the memo. What started in 2008 as an experiment to see if grapes could even grow in these low-nutrient, high-altitude soils culminated in their “incredible, world-class” 2017 malbec receiving 98 points from Tim Atkin, a wine critic and Master of Wine –– a score that also made it his Argentine wine of the year for 2019. And it’s mainly thanks to the soil: Winemaker Jeff Mausbach says he doesn’t know of a similar soil profile anywhere in the world –– and neither does Atkin.

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Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

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The soil in Uspallata is super rocky and low-nutrient. But it works!

Source Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

The project would never have gotten off the ground without a perennial water source that “is born and dies” on the property and can thus be used as the farmer sees fit, says Mausbach. (Water rights are a big deal in Uspallata.) And the fact that the vineyard is so high –– at 6,500 feet, it’s the highest in Mendoza province –– means the grapes are subjected to intense sunlight and extreme temperatures, which “add concentration, structure and aromatic complexity,” says Mausbach. Think floral (violet, lavender) and herbal (rosemary, thyme), and with more intense mineral flavors than its famous Mendoza cousins.

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Source Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

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At 6,500 feet, Uspallata is the highest vineyard in Mendoza province.

Source Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

But “the real X factor,” says Mausbach, is the granite- and limestone-rich colluvial (formed by gravity) soil that came about when “a mountain fell over” –– the area is still prone to earthquakes –– millions of years ago. Most winemaking soil is alluvial (i.e., caused by rivers and glaciers and very fertile), but the stuff in Uspallata is much rockier and harder to grow stuff in. And hardship breeds character –– just ask Charles Dickens.

They’ve already planted half an acre of cabernet franc. Chardonnay and grenache (the red one) are next on the list.  

With soil like this, it’s no wonder critics are excited about the project. James Suckling describes the 2017 malbec as a “superbly layered and engagingly complex wine.” Luis Gutiérrez, writing for RobertParker.com, is similarly effusive: “Everything here has great intensity: aromas, flavors, persistence.” As for Atkin, well, he calls it a red of “stunning intensity from a unique site.” 

Where to Find It: Estancia Uspallata Wines

  • In Mendoza you can buy the 2017 vintage at all Wine Up stores for 2,000 Argentine pesos (around $35). Alternatively, order a bottle with your meal at Azafrán restaurant in Mendoza city.
  • The wines are also available at Don Julio and Aldo’s restaurants in Buenos Aires, or via the Autre Monde wine boutique.
  • Feeling lazy? Order online from Ozono Drinks and get the vino delivered to your hotel in Argentina (it doesn’t ship overseas).
  • The first shipments of the wines have recently departed for the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Watch this space for info on distribution in these countries.

And the winery is just getting started. Not only will the existing vineyards get better with age, says Mausbach (especially the five acres of pinot noir, a grape that always grows old elegantly), but he and his partners will continue to plant small parcels of different varietals that are matched to “the tapestry of soil profiles found on the property.” They’ve already planted half an acre of cabernet franc. Chardonnay and grenache (the red one) are next on the list.  

Whatever they do, they’ll have to do it on a small scale. The limitations of their water supply and the extreme nature of the terrain mean that they’ll never be able to grow more than 20 acres of vineyards on the 100,000-acre property. And because water is so hard to come by in Uspallata, it’s unlikely they’ll have any competition from the neighbors. 

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Source Pablo Monton / Estancia Uspallata

Which is why Mausbach and the rest of the team pay such close attention to those grapes they do manage to get down from Uspallata. (The wines are made at Mausbach’s winery in Mendoza, a couple of hours from the vineyards.) Leaving many of the grapes in whole bunches, they stomp the juices out with their feet before beginning the “micro-vinification process” –– a fancy way of describing covering 1,100 pounds of harvest tubs with plastic refuse bags (to keep the bugs out) and leaving the grapes to stew in their own juices.

After about 12 days the still-fermenting wine is transferred to barrels to continue its alcoholic fermentation. Generally, says Mausbach, “some barrels go to sleep” (that is, fermentation stops) when winter arrives before “waking up again in spring.” It’s a very risky thing to do, he adds, “but it’s worked so far.”

I’ll drink to that.

Also in the Area

  • Aconcagua is only 60 miles from the estate, in the direction of Chile. While summiting the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere requires serious planning, you can visit its base on an “Alta Montaña” day trip from Mendoza.
  • Just a few miles before you reach Aconcagua, you’ll come to the Puente del Inca, a naturally formed rock bridge (sadly, the Incas played no part in its construction) that spans the Rio Mendoza. 
  • The best place to stay in the area is the oh-so-charming mountain village of Barreal — a haven of willows and poplars that’s two hours to the north and not on an important international trucking route.