In Uruguay, A Tiny Wine Region Makes a Big Impression

vineyard uruguay
Bodega Garzon / Photo by Rodrigo Guillenea

You’ve probably heard the expression “good things come in small packages.” Such is the wine story of Uruguay, a country that’s tiny by size and output, but increasingly, a source for opulent as well as elegant wines.

Tucked between Argentina and Brazil on South America’s eastern side, Uruguay is a country of only 3.5 million people, with a long wine history. In the 18th century, European immigrants came to Uruguay with grapes in tow. A century later, Basque settlers planted Tannat, a powerfully tannic red grape with 13th-century roots in France’s mountainous southwest.

Over the ensuing century and a half, Tannat stood the test of time. It’s been replanted over and over with better-performing French clones to become Uruguay’s signature grape. When made well, it yields a dark-tinted, full-bodied and lush wine similar to Argentine Malbec.

Overall, Tannat accounts for more than 4,000 acres of vines planted largely along the country’s fertile and temperate southern coast-line, where the Río de la Plata that separates Uruguay from Argentina joins the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition to Tannat, which is sometimes cited for its health benefits because it boasts high levels of polyphenols like resveratrol, Uruguay is home to red grapes including Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot and Marselan.

Among white grapes, Albariño has adapted well to Uruguay’s Atlantic-influenced terroir, and it’s made mostly in a fresh style akin to wines from Galicia in northwest Spain. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Petit Manseng round out the country’s white grape varieties.

With barely a dozen of its 180 wineries exporting to the U.S., Uruguay might be easy for stateside wine lovers to dismiss. But if you taste a burly yet balanced Tannat from a winery like Bodega Garzón, Artesana, Familia Deicas, Bodega Cerro Chapeu, Pisano or Bodega Bouza, there’s a strong chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe even hooked.

That’s what Uruguay is banking on.

winery vineyard uruguay
Bodega Bouza / Photo courtesy Bodega Bouza

“We have the grapes the world wants,” says Ricardo Cabrera, president of Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura (INAVI), Uruguay’s national institute for viticulture and winemaking. “We also have tradition, which wasn’t always the best. Too much color and heavy wines…that’s not what most people want today.

“But we have much better knowledge and experience now,” he says. “We have more talent—domestic and international—working in the wine industry, and we understand that the public demands better wines. We are still a bit like kids who begin by crawling, then they start walking, and finally they are alone and running. That is us today.”

“We have the grapes the world wants. We also have tradition, which wasn’t always the best.” —Ricardo Cabrera, president of Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura (INAVI)

tank room winery
Tank room at Bodega Cerro Chapeu / Photo courtesy Bodega Cerro Chapeu

A Familiar Start

Much like neighboring Argentina and Chile to the west, Uruguay can trace its wine DNA back to a large wave of Spanish and Italian immigration that began in the 18th century and picked up intensity during the 19th.

The arrival of Tannat in the late 1800s, at the hands of a Basque immigrant named Pascal Harriague, is widely viewed as the starting point for Uruguayan wine as a commercial entity. Many of those original plantings have since been replaced by proven clones from the Pyrenees wine regions of Madiran and Irouléguy. The period from the 1970s through the ’90s represents the golden age of replanting. Today, only about one-third of Uruguayan Tannat qualifies as “old vines” of 50 years or more.

For much of the 20th century, Uruguayan wineries toiled in international obscurity, their focus trained on a limited but thirsty domestic market. The country shares many cultural and culinary customs with Argentina, thus beef is a staple of the local diet. What goes better with grilled meat than an equally meaty red wine like Tannat?

The last 20 years have introduced major changes to the country’s wines. Consistent export channels and an international reputation for quality are now priorities, and Uruguayan wineries have made the necessary strides to compete with more established and much larger wine-producing countries.

This has been fueled in part by input from global wine consultants and the overhaul of overproductive vineyards. New growing regions like Garzón and the emerging Altos de José Ignacio subzone, both in Maldonado where the Atlantic Ocean shows its strongest influence, have also propelled Uruguay forward.

Vineyards of Bodega Garzón
Vineyards of Bodega Garzón / Photo courtesy Bodega Garzón

The Terroir

Draw a horizontal line from Santiago, Chile, through Mendoza, Argentina. Then, extend that line across the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa, and on to Adelaide, Australia. Finally, it will cross through Auckland, New Zealand.

That line, at roughly 34 degrees south latitude, intersects some of the best winegrowing regions in the Southern Hemisphere. Also situated on that line is Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, as well as the Canelones wine region, the country’s largest and most historic growing area.

Canelones is known for humid weather and profound clay-based soils that yield full-bodied Tannat, as well as a potpourri of other full-flavored wines that include red blends, Chardonnay and Albariño.

An hour-and-a-half east of Montevideo, the province of Maldonado is home to the world-famous beaches and nightlife of Punta del Este, as well as the vineyards of Garzón and nearby José Ignacio.

Garzón is where the Argentine oil billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, with help from Italian winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini, has spent the past 20 years turning former cattle grazing land and eucalyptus forests into the country’s most prominent winery.

Bodega Garzón’s early success includes winning Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Award for Best New World Winery in 2018. It sold 25,000 cases in the U.S. last year, by far the most of any Uruguayan winery. Such achievements led others to the area to develop what’s now known as Altos de José Ignacio.

“We like the José Ignacio valley, even though it’s lower in elevation than Garzón,” says Christian Wylie, Bodega Garzón’s general manager, who believes this part of Uruguay has a special allure. “You get a nice southern exposure to the Atlantic Ocean for Albariño and a northern exposure to ripen red grapes like Tannat and Cabernet Franc. Plus, it all sits on quick-draining soils, so you avoid the water retention that leads to the heavier wines that other areas of the country produce.”

Reputable names now exploring the Maldonado area and planting new vineyards include the Deicas and Bouza families, both from Canelones. Meanwhile, top-flight winemakers from Argentina including Gerardo Michelini, whose Uco Valley wines are highly sought, and Hans Vinding-Diers, a Dane who has helped advance the windy Río Negro region at Bodega Noemia de Patagonia, are also working on projects in Garzón and Altos de José Ignacio, respectively.

winery uruguay
Familia Deicas / Photo by Establecimiento Juanico

The Wrap

In 2019, Uruguay exported just 38,000 cases of wine to the U.S., barely a drop in a global ocean that rises every year. With distribution like that, one could argue that the country will never earn much space in the American wine consumer’s cellar. But, if variety is the spice of life, isn’t there always room for something new and good?“

We think this our moment,” says Cabrera. “We have a new young president [Luis Lacalle] who believes in the wine industry. We have domestic stability. We want to produce the quality of wine that consumers want. We want to be an example for all the other small producers in the world.”

 Artesana Winery
Photo courtesy Artesana Winery

Six Top-Rated Uruguayan Wines to Buy

Cerro Chapeu 2017 Batovi T1 Single Vineyard Tannat (Uruguay); $35, 93 points. Massive dark-berry aromas range from blackberry to spiced black cherry. Following the nose, this is flush and lush but balanced more than just hefty. Chocolaty oak blends with ripe berry and spice flavors in front of a smooth, toasty finish with black-coffee notes and welcome acidity. This feels big and rich. Drink through 2025. MHW, Ltd.

Artesana 2018 Reserva Tannat (Canelones); $19, 92 points. Dark-berry aromas form a nose that’s quite dense. A saturated palate is packed with concentrated power, while blackberry and cassis flavors are backed by oak that’s slightly charred and warming. Hence, dark-chocolate and smoky flavors play out on a muscular finish with some tartaric burn. Drink this high-level Tannat through 2025. Austral Estates Wines. Editors’ Choice.

Bodega Garzón 2018 Single Vineyard Tannat (Uruguay); $30, 92 points. This is a ripe version of Tannat, with earth and blackberry aromas leading the charge. Toasty dark-fruit flavors benefit from integrated oak, while this tastes peppery on the finish. The palate shows a lot of grip, so it’s best to serve this with meat. Drink through 2025. Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits.

Bouza 2018 B6 Parcela Única Las Violetas Tannat (Canelones); $48, 92 points. A nearly black color and maximumly ripe aromas of cassis, raisin and road tar announce a typical Bouza Tannat that’s saturated and rich. Given the color, nose and 16% weight, it’s no surprise that this is packed to the hilt with pulpy black fruit and tartaric acidity that helps with balance. Dark flavors of blackberry, cassis, espresso and chocolate finish warm, rich and spicy, with a fiery burn. Drink through 2024. Elixir Wine Group.

Viña Progreso 2016 Old Vines Tannat (Progreso); $31, 92 points. This small-batch Tannat from the traditional Progreso subzone near Montevideo opens with bright berry aromas and a sense of balanced freshness. The palate is racy but balanced by nicely extracted fruit, while oaky flavors of coffee and chocolate aid the core blackberry fruit. A supple finish with good flow wraps up this attractive red. Drink through 2023. Copa Fina Imports CA.

Cerro Chapeu 2019 Gran Tradición Petit Manseng-Viognier (Montevideo); $25, 89 points. Buttery oak aromas are out front on this barrel-aged Petit Manseng (with 10% Viognier). A plump palate is ripe and round on first take, then softer and flatter on the back end. Apple, saline, tropical-fruit and citrus flavors are a mixed bag, albeit a good one, while this runs short on the finish. Drink now. MHW, Ltd.

Published on December 17, 2020
Topics: South America