Montevideo y Colonia are Uruguay’s premium wine regions. Mariana Gómez Rus goes forth to the River Plate.
Candombe music was drummed up in Uruguay by 18th Century African slaves. Joy, sorrow, religion and irreverence became entwined in dance, song and music. It is a social and cultural phenomenon and one of the most eloquent musical expressions of Uruguay today. See for yourself – take a stroll through the Barrio Sur on any Saturday afternoon. Drums reverberate to the rhythm of tan-go, exciting both locals and visitors.
Uruguayan wine is just as exciting. Spanish, Italian and French immigrants introduced the vine to Uruguay in the 19th Century. Don Pascual Harriague was an important personality in the development of Uruguayan viticulture as it was him who introduced the first Tannat plants in the country. The grapes ended up adapting well to the Uruguayan climate and soil and the Basque businessman ended up with a thriving 300 hectare vineyard devoted to this powerful wine, famous for its intense color and great structure. Over time the wine became so popular that Tannat was renamed “Harriague”, a sobriquet that it still retains on some vineyards.
For many years the production of wine in Uruguay was associated with volume, as it was in Argentina. Table wine was mass produced exclusively for internal consumption. Towards the end of the 1980s the industry underwent a great change that, among other things, included the creation of a national regulatory body (INAVI) and a return to the true identity of the Harriague grape, finally renamed Tannat.
Uruguay is located between 30 and 35 degrees southern latitude, the same as Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia. It has natural and environmental conditions ideal for making wines. The vineyards rest on plains of mainly clay soil and rocky lands in an exotic and surprising landscape, influenced by an Atlantic breeze and the Uruguay River that brings cool nights.
In addition to its flagship variety Tannat, Uruguay also cultivates Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Marcelán, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Albariño and Viognier amongst others. It has about 10,000 hectares of vineyards producing some 90 million litres per year, by approximately 300 wineries. Almost all are family establishments that in some cases have been active for more than three generations.
It is currently the fourth largest wine producer in South America with Brazil as its biggest, most traditional market. Of its nineteen counties, fifteen produce wine. The better areas are Montevideo, Canelones, Rocha (near Punta del Este), Paisandú and Colonia (Carmelo).
A man cannot not live on mate alone
The habit of drinking mate (pronounced matay) in Uruguay is deeply rooted, so much so that the mate gourd and thermos flask is a kind of extension of the arm of most Uruguayans. Whether in a small town or in a large city, the Uruguayan always moves with a mate kit slung over his shoulder (and I do not exaggerate). According to the BBC, this small country of 3 million inhabitants has the highest consumption of yerba mate leaf per person, with 8 kilos per year (dethroning its Argentine and Paraguayan neighbors).
And what about wine? Well, apparently wine is as sacred as mate because the per capita consumption is 29 liters per person per year – 12th in the World and number one in American consumption, followed by Argentina with a lagging 19 litres.
Taking a Wine Tour
Planning a visit to the Charrúa Country and want to taste wine? Wine tourism in Uruguay is a fairly recent activity and there is a better chance of group tours in the high season October to March. Single travelers will find it difficult to join group tours in low season. Also it is important to keep in mind that Uruguay is more expensive than Argentina, and doing a private wine tour can be very costly.
There are wine tour companies based in Punta del Este (The Wine Experience) and in Colonia del Sacramento. Even if you have little time and are staying in Buenos Aires you can take a wine tour for the day starting from the Argentine Capital (Borravino tours)
If these options do not fit your time or budget, you can also do a wine tour independently.
Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia’s vineyards are mostly located in the district of Carmelo, 70 km north of Colonia town. Carmelo is where the River Plate is born and it is a quiet, laidback town. To visit wineries you can rent a car in Colonia and tour the area surrounding Carmelo or take a bus to the town and arrange for a taxi to take you to one or two wineries.
My first stop was Irurtia, one of the largest and most historical wineries in Uruguay. Founded in1900, it marks the beginning of viticulture in the area and is currently managed by the fourth generation of the Irurtia family. It produces around 1.5 million bottles per year. The most impressive part of the visit is the cellar, where it is easy to find wines with almost illegible labels covered in dust and cobwebs with sixty years old vintages. In addition to making classic reds and whites (Tannat, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Marcelán, Cab Franc and others), the winery also produces fortified wines that I recommend tasting, especially the Gewurztraminer or mistela (very special and complex). Make sure to try the port style, fortified Tannat, aged ten years in barrel.
Irurtia has visits at 11am and 3pm. email@example.com
El Legado is a true gem that cannot be overlooked. The quality of their wines is matched by the warmth of the place. The owners welcomed me with great kindness and enthusiasm, despite having arrived without reservation. El Legado is a family winery in operation since 2007. In the 1960s the father of the current owner Bernardo Marzuca acquired some vineyards with the idea of setting up his first winery. The dream never materialized and the vineyards were sold. Years later, Bernardo decided to revive the project. He bought back the vineyards and pulled up plants that were no longer able to produce quality grapes and then planted new varietals. The vineyard works with low yields looking for more concentrated fruit. And although Uruguay does not have the cooling effect of altitude, it enjoys the cold air coming from the river.
After the visit I tasted three incredible wines, especially the syrah with one year in wood. It has very balanced, fine structure, good acidity and great aromatic complexity.
With the tasting comes a cheese and cold meat platter, all for a very reasonable US $25.
El Legado is an impeccable boutique operation producing 15,000 bottles of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Marcelán (a cross of Cabernet and Garnacha).
What to do in Colonia
Colonia is a charming town on the banks of the River Plate. Spend an afternoon exploring its old cobbled streets, lighthouse and promenade. Stroll through the old town and step back in time on the Calle de los Suspiros (street of sighs) where 200 years ago, prisoners condemned to death descended by this alley to their execution.
For wine tours in the Uruguayan capital, I recommend a visit to Bodega Bouza. Located about 20 minutes from Montevideo, it is one of the most interesting options in the Montevideo-Canelones area.
The winery was built in 1940 and acquired by the Bouza family in 2003. They produce around 200,000 bottles a year, not only Tannat, but also Albariño, blends and a very special grappa made with Tannat. The wines age three to eighteen months in barrels.
Because of the moist soil, a prudent distance of two meters is applied between rows to avoid the shade of one vine over the other (especially in the vineyards planted by Tannat that naturally are more vigorous).
Bouza is an excellent option if you have no car as they offer a transfer from your hotel (they will pick you up at 10am and return you at 4pm) followed by a visit, tasting and a gourmet lunch with wine pairings. All for $130 US per person.
What to do in Montevideo
Walk the Rambla to Punta Carretas, get lost in the old city and the Port (where each corner is a picture postcard), stop at the Port Market to eat some tender beef and try a “medio y medio” (white wine and sparkling) or go to the Mercado Agricola (farmer’s market) for some everyday colour and charm. Stop at Calle 18 de Julio to see the milonga. Then walk to the Parque Rodo, Palermo or Barrio Sur and get carried away by the rhythm of the candombe in this arty, bohemian district.
Uruguay in Guaraní means “river of the birds”.
Surface area 176 thousand square kilometres
660 kms of coastline
3.5 million inhabitants
12 million cows
10,000 hectares of vineyards (3,000 of which are of Tannat)