Uruguay is the little country between Argentina and Brazil on the coast. It’s not Paraguay, and they are separate countries. Sounds patronising, but its surprising how many Uruguayans will tell you anecdotes of how most westerners they meet actually have no idea where this little gem of a country is. And if you look at any bottle of Uruguayan wine, they almost all put a map of South America on the bottle, highlighting where their country is.
If you are travelling in the Southern Cone, don’t miss it out. Yes – it’s organized, it’s clean, people go to bed at a reasonable hour and public transport runs on time, but that doesn’t make it boring. With Christmas and New Year’s celebrations taking the form of huge cider throwing fights, endless fireworks and lots of parties, the year gets off to a good start here, but the best time to visit the capital city of Montevideo has to be Carnival in February and March. The longest Carnival in the world, with 40 days of theatre, music, murgas and candombe – it even gives Rio de Janeiro a run for its money.
Aside from fiestas there is another good reason to hop across the Rio del Plata to Uruguay, for it’s wine…
Uruguay and it’s wine
Although a relatively unknown new world wine producer, Uruguay has more of a history in winemaking than many know. The country has been making wine for over 250 years and is the fourth biggest producer in South America. As with most wine producing countries, the focus in earlier years was on quantity rather than quality, but in the last 20 years the focus shifted towards fine wines.
Thanks to this handful of fine wine producers the reputation for Uruguay’s vino started to gain footing in the international wine scene, especially for its unique Tannat.
Brought to Uruguay by Basque immigrant Pascual Harriague in 1874, this French grape now makes up over a third of Uruguay’s 8,200 hectare production. Like the Malbec phenomonon in Argentina, Tannat is now more associated with Uruguay than its homelands. Although Tannat opened the doors for Uruguay, there is more to discover beyond this rustic grape – most notably some very interesting whites.
The main wine region in Uruguay is Canelones (named so after a tree, not the pasta) – the region surrounding Montevideo, and easily accessible by short car trips from the city centre. The touristic wineries in Uruguay’s Caminos del Vino (wine route) are all quite tiny compared to Argentine standards, but nonetheless there is a great scope of character. The only thing in common is their personal touch – you won’t find uniforms, or sun hats emblazoned with the winery name here… you are far more likely to end up drinking with the owner than a guide.
Bodega Spinoglio (www.bodegaspinoglio.com)
Spinoglio proudly states that it is highest altitude winery in Uruguay. Although its 500m above sea level doesn’t quite induce the same altitude sickness as the 3000m wineries of Salta, you still get good views over the city of Montevideo and can feel a fresh breeze on top of the hill. 90 year old Angel Spinoglio bought this old winery in 1960 and started making table wines. After producing a lot of wine and nine children, his son Diego took over the reins as winemaker in 2005 starting fine wines under the label Tierra Alta – although Angel can still be seen pottering around his organic fruit garden and tending some of his own vines. This winery offers a glimpse into artisanal winemaking methods with wooden presses and simple technology.
Sauvignon Blanc 2011: A salty white wine with mild chalky characteristics and white flowers. A slight fizz that would suit seafood, best drunk cold in the shade under one of their grapefruit trees in the garden!
Bouza , Bodega Boutique (www.bodegabouza.com)
This is probably the most tourist friendly of all the wineries in Uruguay. Opened a decade ago by Uruguayans Juan and Elisa who wanted to enjoy the finer things in life, Bouza has carved out a good reputation for itself already.
With a gorgeous converted chapel style winery filled with the latest boutique production technology, an eye-watering collection of classic cars, an animal farm, regal gardens and an attractive gourmet restaurant – there is more to this winery than just wine. But don’t overlook their gorgeous vino… Bouza have conquered many international competitions and you can taste the investment and the experienced winemaker in their high quality, individually numbered wines. Make sure to enjoy them over a great lunch at the restaurant – try the quince soufflé with cheese sauce for dessert with their homemade Tannat Grappa.
Albarino, 2011: Bouza have made their icon white this sprightly Spanish variety. With a small amount fermented in oak and in contact with the lees, there is a smooth creaminess which sits nicely with the fresh pears, pineapple and green apple notes. Dreamy.
Tannat Parcela Unica, B6. 2009: Their top varietal lines of Merlot, Tempranillo and Tannat are selected from the best individual lots that year. And 2009’s Tannat is an outstanding example of the variety – roasted pepper, rich red fruits, refreshing menthol notes and a complexity from 18 months in French oak, it will keep you intrigued and help you fall in love with Tannat.
De Lucca (www.deluccawines.com)
This rustic winery might feel like a bit of a health and safety hazard as you walk around the hundred-year-old building, but it is a visit you are sure not to forget. Reinaldo de Lucca is a real character, and having made wine since he was a young child you can tell his passion and strong opinions on wine from the first instant.
Describing wine as the purist form of love and ‘a God-given union between the water and energy of the world’, you can certainly see Reinaldo’s Italian heritage and tell that his love for wine is more than skin deep.
Having studied and worked in France, his wines reflect an old world tendency. And as you taste wines with him under the trees by his porch, he can spin some yarn about the history of wine in Uruguay.
Marsanne Reserva 2010: An unusual varietal to see here, this is a potent and structured white has a lot of character with very ripe and cooked fruit.
Libero 2010: Another less common blend of Tannat, Nero D’Avola and Sangiovese. An intense wine, heavy on the chocolate and with a trademark long finish.
Vina Varela Zarranz
Out in the sticks of East Canelones, this is one of Uruguay’s biggest wineries. But pulling up its olive tree lined driveway, past the mature gardens, large colonial house and arriving at the terracotta painted winery – you wouldn’t know it. Still producing a huge amount of table wine, in the 1980s the family started to make fine wines and visitors can try one of their many labels in the attractive gaucho-chic tasting room located under the main house.
A wine tour contrasts the table wine and fine wine production methods and Varela Zarranz make an interesting Petit Grain Muscat (similar to Torrontes), a late harvest Chardonnay and some great sparklings to boot.
Guidai Deti, 2004: This is the only harvest of the winery’s icon blend to date. Tannat, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, 12 months in the barrel and five years in the bottle make this a subtle but still spicy blend, rich in forest berries and laced with coffee.
Varela Zarranz Brut Nature 2007: A half and half blend of Chardonnay and Viogner, this champenoise method sparkler has fine bubbles, tropical fruits, cream and brioche. 36 months sur lee.
Originally started by a Galician family, Filgueira is now undergoing a bit of a revamp with a new female winemaker, modern branding and healthy investment from the new Brazilian owners. However this medium sized winery still holds on to some of their tradition, in particular by making Sauvignon Gris.
The Sauvignon Gris vines were actually bought by accident, but sometimes these twists of fate work out for the better and Filgueira is now known in Uruguay for its iconic white which they make as a young wine and barrel aged.
Although you won’t meet the family touring this winery, the candid honesty and fresh approach of Sebastian and Melissa make it a nice stop along the wine routes.
Sauvignon Gris Reserva 2009: Make sure to taste this alongside the unoaked Sauvignon Gris to see the huge change in character a little oak aging does (actually quite a lot – 40% in first use French barrels for 18 months). A completely different beast with quince, coconut and banana and a medium body. Hugely different to the citrus and mineral notes of the young wine.
Gran Estripe 2007: Their icon blend is only released on good years and this Cabernet Sauvignon driven blend is a gorgeous deep wine with an explosive mouth, spicy finish and complex nose.
A boutique winery originally started in1938 by Canary Island immigrants Isabelino and Filomena, their grandsons Juan Andres and Alejandro have now upped the ante by making fine wines with real character.
After studying oenology in Mendoza, Juan Andres came back with grand ambitions and along with the help of his close knit family, he reinvigorated the small winery and is making some exemplary wines that are a key influence in Uruguay’s wine scene. He passionately explains all the processes as you tour the bodega and vineyards and in the tasting room you can try one of the best Pinot Noir’s in the country.
Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir 2008: A classic champagne blanc de noir blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is an elegant still wine with light salmon hues and a nutty finish.
Pinot Noir/Tannat 2008: Tannat can need a bit of taming sometimes and Pinot Noir is an ideal partner for this bottle. You can still feel the tingling tannat characteristics but in a much more feminine package with silky Pinot Noir harnessing its strength.
Grand Reserve Tannat A: Intense and rich with black fruits, slow burning spice and layers of chocolate and coffee. A sexy companion.
As one of the biggest wineries in Uruguay, it is no surprise that Juanico is primed for tourism (in fact it was the first to open to tourism), and best of all you can arrive here from Montevideo by train! This rolling estate and large winery has a rather corporate feel to it, but its long prestigious history oozes through the old brickwork.
The real gem of this winery is undoubtedly the cellar from 1830. Beautifully old, crumbling and moldy, you can smell the legacy as well as the 300 barrels gently doing their work. With a huge production (for Uruguay) and one of the best know labels in the country, Don Pascual, there is a huge range of wines to try in their portfolio.
Preludio Blanco 2009: As a chardonnay led blend that has spent over a year in the barrel, this is as buttery and rich as you expect. With creamy, nutty and cooked fruit aromas you can easily get carried away with this without realizing its 14% alcohol…
Carrau is undoubtedly one of the finest wine families in Uruguay. With parents hailing from Catalunya, Juan Carrau Pujol made wine in different wineries in Uruguay and Brazil before starting his own project in 1976. Now the eight children have taken it into their own hands. Carrau has two wineries – one in Canelones and the other in the north east of the country in Rivera, bordering Brazil. The Rivera winery is the first underground winery in the Americas and it is here where they get most of their premium wine.
The Carraus are the pioneers of Tannat as a single varietal wine and even though they could rest of their laurels as the first to make Tannat, they continue to push forward with the famed Uruguayan grape, doing clone studies and sensorial analysis to find its optimum expression. A visit to the winery is a charming one (especially if you have the fortune of being with daughter Margarita Carrau) with attractive quirks like multicoloured wine tanks, wine analysis booths for the workers, old photos of the family history and a cava where you can see and buy wines from every vintage, including their first Tannat in 1979!
Juan Carrau Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011: As you would expect from an almost Brazilian terroir, this wine is bursting with tropical fruit! A zingy and fresh wine with a guava nose.
Ysern Cabernet-Cabernet 2004: A blend of the Rivera and Canelones Cabernet Sauvignons, this is a savoury wine with lots of cooked pepper, black olives and leather notes. Simply gorgeous.
Fortified Tannat 2006: This dessert wine is just like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Postre in a glass.
This well-established winery is full of family history and is run by the fourth generation of the Passadore family. As the first sparkling wine producer in Uruguay, a visit includes a tour around their cellar where they make 120,000 bottles of fizz a year all by traditional hand turned champenoise methods.
The atmospheric cellar with its historical huge barrels gives you a glimpse into how they made wine throughout the years, and having been founded in 1870, there is a lot of history to this winery. You get a real feel of the intimate and close knitted Uruguayan wine world here.
Santa Rosa is also one of the key producers of Uruguay’s favourite Christmas drink, Media y Media (half sparkling wine and half cider).
Brut Sauvage 2009: Undoubtedly one of the finest sparkling wines in Uruguay, this handsome fizz has a complex mouth, dry finish and bags of character.
** Most visits require reservations, especially for the smaller wineries. For more information on the wineries contact Los Caminos del Vino Uruguay (www.uruguaywinetours.com)
By Amanda Barnes
Published in the February/March 2012 edition of Wine Republic