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Understanding Uruguay

In partnership with Uruguay Wine

Despite its long wine heritage, Uruguay has been slow to win the global recognition it deserves. But as producers make viticultural advances and explore new terroirs, this is beginning to change. Patricio Tapia reports

Tango offers some of the most beautiful but also the saddest lyrics in the world of music. Disenchantment, loneliness, nostalgia, all surrounded by a halo of melancholy that makes tango a pleasure, but a rather guilty one.

There are many voices of tango, but without a doubt the most famous, the ‘Elvis’ of tango, is Carlos Gardel. The impeccable look, the perfect hairstyle, the cross-lapel jacket, the polished shiny shoes, the bright eyes and his raspy but sweet voice, singing the classic tangos that made a generation of South Americans sigh.

Gardel was a naturalised citizen of Argentina, but he claimed to be Uruguayan by birth (although there is evidence to suggest that he was actually born in Toulouse, France). He certainly fits the mould of a Uruguayan. While generalisations can be tedious, especially when it comes to defining the people of a particular country, Uruguayans seem to display a certain melancholy in their way of being, in their way of seeing life.

That was one of the things that most caught my attention when I first visited Uruguay, in early 2000. Under the shadow of the Chilean wine boom and the incipient growth of Argentinian wine, the melancholy of the Uruguayans translated into a certain resignation at not being able to compete with those new wines, but also some mistrust when showing their wines, as if what they did was not up to the same standard as their neighbours. Today that has changed, and has changed radically, especially since Uruguayans seem to have realised that what they have is not only of good quality, but also has very little to do with what is done elsewhere in South America.

Javier Carrau

Javier Carrau

Climatic conditions

Uruguay looks towards the Atlantic and a large part of its territory, in the northwest, flanks the mighty Río de la Plata. Both bodies of water play a very important role in the climate of the viticultural areas, which are humid, but at the same time have moderate temperatures, never reaching the heat levels of Mendoza in Argentina, or the Central Valley in Chile.

It is these conditions which have made Tannat the star grape of Uruguay. Imported for the first time in 1870 from the southwest of France by the Basque Pascual Harriague, Tannat has a firm, thick skin strong enough to prevent the rot of grapes under the heavy Atlantic rains. Thanks to viticultural advances, the diversity of wine grapes in Uruguay is today relatively wide, but in those first years of trial and error it was Tannat that survived. Today it is still the country’s most-planted variety, accounting for 1,600ha of the 6,000ha of land under vine.

Many of those hectares of Tannat are concentrated in Canelones, the country’s most-planted region, accounting for more than 60% of its production. The reason for this concentration is its proximity to Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, which has always been the main market for Uruguayan wines. Annual consumption in Uruguay is 27 litres per capita – the highest of any South American country.

Soil types

The soft hills of Canelones combined with the region’s clay and limestone soils produce a Tannat that is austere in aroma but has a great intensity of textures, such as those obtained in Las Violetas, one of Uruguay’s top viticultural areas. ‘The soils in Las Violetas are very fertile: production must be controlled to obtain ripe grapes and soft tannins,’ says Javier Carrau of Bodegas Carrau, one of the main promoters of Tannat in Uruguay. ‘Under those conditions you get reds with an intense colour and very rich fruit flavours.’

The Tannat of Canelones could be considered a classic Uruguayan style. With firm tannins, great structure and concentration it can be compared to a Romanesque church, with the same austerity and those thick walls.

In contrast, newer styles of Tannat are beginning to appear in regions towards the east, in Maldonado Bay, facing the Atlantic Ocean. This area has only been planted since the beginning of this century, but during the past five years it has demonstrated that it has much to contribute to the diversity of Uruguay’s wine scene.

The topography of Maldonado is made up of gentle slopes that gradually slide to the Atlantic. The influence of the ocean is felt in constant winds, which help control humidity, while granite soils have low fertility and good drainage – the latter particularly important in a country where it rains a lot.

According to Alberto Antonini, Italian winemaker and adviser at Bodega Garzón, one of the main recent forces in Uruguayan wine: ‘Due to its terroir, Garzón’s Tannat is juicy, vibrant and acidic, with bright black fruit. [It is] more textural and less concentrated than the examples from Canelones, with a deep and smooth reactive tannin.’

Los Cerros de San Juan

Los Cerros de San Juan, Colonia

Galician accent

In fact, those granitic soils and the strong influence of the sea have not only served to uncover a more fruity and friendly face of Tannat, but also to produce very good wines from other grapes. Red varieties to look out for are Cabernet Franc and Syrah, while for whites there are very good Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. The new white star of Uruguay, however, is Maldonado’s Albariño, especially those made by Garzón, Bodega Océanica and the pioneer of the grape in Uruguay, Bodega Bouza, produced in Montevideo and Canelones.

‘The conditions in this area are similar to those found in Galicia: humidity, and granite soils. That is why I think we have obtained good results with this grape,’ says Juan Bouza about his perfumed and deliciously refreshing Albariño from Montevideo and Canelones. It is an ideal white to drink on the beaches of Punta del Este, one of the most famous spots in South America and the gateway to this new wine region.

The Maldonado area represents a new face of Uruguay, but this is a country with a long wine heritage. Colonia, in the southwest, for example, is home to the oldest winery in Uruguay, Los Cerros de San Juan, founded more than 160 years ago. Colonia is the second most-planted region, with about 1,100ha of vineyards, and it is here that Uruguay’s first Sauvignon Blancs were made, influenced by its proximity to the Río de la Plata. Today the fresh, herbal style of these Sauvignons continues, but the region also produces firm, tense Tannats.

The recent history of Uruguayan wine has had its ups and downs. Until very recently, and perhaps wanting to imitate the success of Argentinian Malbec, producers tried to make their Tannat with a similar silkiness, a similarly charming, enveloping character – something that Malbec has to spare. But Tannat is the opposite of that style. By researching more in the vineyard and exploring new terroirs, today’s producers are managing to find a truer personality for Tannat; and at the same time they are discovering new grapes and new flavours in this small but dynamic South American wine-producing country.

Today, there is a growing confidence among Uruguay’s winemakers – and they are right to be proud of their wines.

Paul Hobbs: a ‘gringo’ winemaker in Uruguay

American consultant winemaker Paul Hobbs has been visiting Uruguay since the early 1990s. Today, he is a consultant for the Deicas family projects, one of the most dynamic forces on the new Uruguayan scene.

What are the differences between viticulture in Uruguay and the rest of South America?

Everything. Mainly because the climate here is majorly different relative to any of the well-known wine regions of Argentina or Chile – it’s drier and warmer. Climate impacts the entire biosphere, so the soils are unique too. Viticulturally speaking, it’s unlike any other place on the continent.

How have Uruguay’s wines developed since your first visit?

Fast. In the 1990s I was struck by how backwards the industry was – it made Argentina look positively space age. There was an intense, driving will to improve, but we were racked by where to get the money to finance these capital-intensive dreams. Today, I can only speculate on how they did it, but when I returned 17 years later to work with Deicas, I really could not believe my eyes. Certainly it didn’t hurt that deep-pocketed foreign investments were made – for example at Garzón – but Deicas and others had advanced in major ways as well.

You’ve worked in numerous vineyards throughout Uruguay. Which area has provided you with the most satisfaction?

Of the Deicas holdings, which are diverse and extensive, ironically one of my favourites is its home vineyard in Canelones. I didn’t expect much from the relatively heavy clay soils, but I was wrong. I found energy, vitality, freshness and finesse.

Tannat is considered Uruguay’s unique selling point, but is there another grape that has potential?

The short answer is that we don’t really have a handle on this yet, but we are working hard on it. Several white classical varietals certainly excel, while some rarified varieties such as Petit Manseng can be very good. Merlot, Marselan and Cabernet Franc all show promise.

What are the major challenges for Uruguay?

There are major challenges to making great wine anywhere. Years ago, economic factors and climate would have been my answer. Today, I don’t see either of those as concerns. For Uruguayan producers it strikes me that the next big hurdle is gaining international awareness and being accorded due respect for the beautiful wines they are making.

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