With a maritime climate much like that of Bordeaux, the grass is certainly greener in Uruguay than in the arid wine regions of nearby Argentina and Chile. But while the grass may be greener, managing that grass – between the vines at least – is certainly harder. Indeed Uruguay has the most labour-intensive climate of all South American wine regions.
‘Uruguay has a much more temperate climate, and high rainfall,’ explains flying winemaker Duncan Killiner, who has been making wine in South America for 25 years. ‘There’s much more disease pressure in Uruguay and, as a lot of the viticultural work has to be done by hand, the labour costs increase four-fold when compared to the rest of the New World. Hence the extra love in each bottle of Uruguayan wine costs a little more!’
The maritime climate is what makes Uruguay’s wines so distinctive in South America: delicately aromatic, fresh and balanced. But the changeable climate also means Uruguay’s wine-growers have to work much harder to strike a balance between effective, efficient and ecologically sensitive viticulture. Despite the challenges, sustainable viticulture is firmly on the agenda in Uruguay – at both a local and national level.
A strict code
Uruguay’s wine producers have been using integrated farming techniques widely for decades, and a new association set up last year put into action a three-year sustainability programme and certification. ‘We already have 34 producers and 642ha in the programme for this first year,’ says Bettina Bértola from the National Viticulture Institute, on a number that already represents more than 10% of the country’s production. ‘And there are many producers interested in joining next year,’ she adds.
The sustainability qualification is being developed in conjunction with producers to create a strict code focused on sustainable and ecological production of high-quality wine grapes. ‘This new certification will limit use of some agrochemicals and eliminate many altogether,’ explains Sebastian Ariano, fourth-generation winemaker at Ariano Hermanos winery. ‘But beyond this certification, we’ve always thought of wine grapes as a sustainable crop. This year, our winery celebrated 90 years as a company, and sustaining the business for future generations has always been the focus.’
Family winery Giménez Méndez has also been focusing on integrated farming for multiple generations. ‘Sixty years ago we started talking about the negative effects of conventional agriculture on the environment,’ explains export manager Sebastián Pedreira, ‘and since then we’ve been moving towards the more sustainable alternatives available through integrated farming and organic production – for the benefit of the environment and human health.’
Focus on biodiversity
Many Uruguayan wine-growers feel that caring for their vineyards runs in their blood. ‘On the vineyard we have always been 99% organic,’ explains Daniel Pisano, the fourth generation of his family to make wine in Canelones. ‘We were born and live in the midst of our vineyards, so we are very conscious of having a healthy place to live and work.’
In recent years, like many wine families in Uruguay, the Pisano family has prioritised biodiversity in its vineyards. This has meant cutting out herbicides entirely, even in the rich, fertile clay soils of Canelones and Montevideo.
‘Since 2006 we’ve been working in our Montevideo vineyard without herbicides, simply using machines to control the grass growth,’ explains Marcos Carrau, 10th generation at Bodegas Carrau. ‘By leaving the wild grass, we see a greater diversity of vegetation and microflora, which is beneficial for the soil and the plant.’
Cerro Chapeu in northern Uruguay is another winery focused on using the natural biodiversity of their site to aid viticulture. ‘We’ve been using native yeasts for our wine ferments since 1988,’ explains export manager Pia Carrau, ‘and we also apply these native yeasts in the vineyard – they effectively work as a fungicide.’
Maintaining the natural characteristics of the site is also a top priority for Narbona winery in Carmelo. ‘We are working with minimum intervention in order to revalue the region and its very specific characteristics,’ explains winemaker Valeria Chiola, who feels less intervention in the soil helps the terroir translate better to the wines.
Many wineries, including Narbona, Toscanini Wines, Varela Zarranz and one of the country’s largest producers, Establecimiento Juanicó, have been trialling organic viticulture – and in some cases organic practices have also filtered into the winery. ‘We’ve been reducing the use of sulphur dioxide each vintage,’ says Juanicó winemaker and third-generation owner Santiago Deicas. ‘We are using three times less than we did 10 years ago. This includes making some natural wines under our Bizarra label.’
Pablo Fallabrino of Viñedo de los Vientos is also a champion of low- to no-sulphur winemaking. ‘My philosophy is to produce grapes with minimal intervention from chemical products, in a balanced ecosystem – and in the winery we’ve also been on a path towards minimal intervention,’ he explains from his winery in Canelones, just 4km from the coast. ‘Although Uruguay is humid and we have problems with downy mildew, we don’t have any problems with oidium – so we don’t need to use any sulphur treatments. This is an advantage we have compared to the other dry regions in the New World, which have to apply tons of sulphur per hectare. This sulphur is a petrol derivative, so it’s not at all ecological.’
Fallabrino’s major initiatives in the winery include native yeast ferments, using no added sulphites or enzymes, and reusing barrels for up to 15 years. Fallabrino says the changes have been doubly beneficial: ‘We are now producing wines with more personality – and much healthier wines.’
A neighbouring winery, Bracco Bosca, focuses on the most ecologically sensitive way for the grapes to reach not only the winery, but also the consumer. ‘We’ve been using ecological bottles made from recycled glass for the past three years,’ explains owner Fabiana Bracco. ‘We also recycle the cardboard wine boxes with local customers. At first, people were a bit uncomfortable receiving boxes that had been used before, but now they understand the ecological impact and love it.’
Ecological bottles and packaging are being adopted widely in Uruguay, and wineries including Antigua Bodega, Familia Dardanelli and Familia Traversa have also made the transition from traditional heavy bottles to lighter, ecologically friendly bottles.
A recent explosion of new producers in Uruguay’s coastal Maldonado region has also made sustainability a focal point. Bodega Garzón, established in 2016 by Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, became the first 100% LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver-certified winery outside North America last year.
‘I felt we had the responsibility to construct something that would protect the purity of the surrounding land and wildlife,’ explains Bulgheroni. ‘I’m extremely proud of my team for setting a new benchmark in the wine industry for sustainable design.’ Every installation and building has LEED Silver certification, from the innovative waste-water system to the ‘living roof’ featuring 70,000 plants – the largest in Latin America.
Viña Edén, also in Maldonado, was designed in 2009 to not only recycle water but to generate its own electricity from wind turbines and solar panels in the vineyard, which in fact supplies double the electricity it needs. ‘The excess energy we generate goes into the local power grid for the nearby villages,’ explains owner Mauricio Zlatkin. ‘Our ethos is to have a positive environmental impact on the region.’
New Maldonado wineries such as Viña Edén, Garzón and Bodega Oceánica José Ignacio have also had a positive economic impact, creating a new tourism industry that has provided hundreds of jobs for locals and revived local artisan traditions.
Historic wineries are also planting anew, with an eye for grape varieties that are sustainable for the future. ‘Marselan has great characteristics for sustainable viticulture in Uruguay,’ explains Varela Zarranz winemaker Santiago Degásperi. ‘Its thick skin protects the berries from splitting in the rain, and we can work the vineyard organically and biodynamically. Its naturally high acidity also makes it more stable in the winery – so we aren’t adding any sulphur to the wine at all.’
As Uruguay’s producers continue to explore more sustainable vineyard and winery practices, the emphasis grows on respecting not only the environment of today, but that of tomorrow. ‘We work with techniques that respect the harmony of our natural environment,’ explains Florentina Casao from El Capricho in Durazno. ‘We do it for our land, for us and for the generations to come.’
Sustainable Uruguay: Barnes shares her top 12 wine recommendations
Cerro del Toro, Albariño, Maldonado 2019 91
This new hillside coastal vineyard shows great promise from its debut vintage of Albariño. Juicy peach aromas lead into a lively wine with a tangy, saline finish that leaves you dreaming of the sea. Drink 2020-2023 Alc 12%
Bracco Bosca, Ombú Moscatel, Canelones 2018 90
Fabiana Bracco is on a mission to revalue her old vines. Her Moscatel and Ugni Blanc blend is scented with citrus and white blossom. This is a crisp, sea-salt fresh wine; ideal for sushi on the beach. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 12%
El Capricho, Verdejo, Durazno 2019 89
One of the few producers in the inland Durazno region, El Capricho also pioneered the Verdejo grape. This lemon-scented, steely white shows classic fennel and pink grapefruit aromas, with a fresh finish. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 12%
Bodega Oceánica José Ignacio, Pinot Rosé, Maldonado 2019 92
Mouthwatering Pinot Noir rosé from this new coastal vineyard located just 10km from the sea. Precision, purity and pink pleasure guided by the hand of renowned winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers. Drink 2020-2023 Alc 12.5%
Viña Progreso, Underground Barrel-less Tannat, Canelones 2019 94
Unoaked and sulphite-free: this is the bold approach of one of Uruguay’s most promising young winemakers, Gabriel Pisano. This sumptuous Tannat reveals elegant, silky tannins on the palate and a rich perfume of berries and violets. Drink 2020-2025 Alc 13.5%
Alto de la Ballena, Reserva Tannat-Viognier, Maldonado 2015 93
The modern-day pioneer of coastal Maldonado is also a pioneer of adding Viognier (14%) into its Tannat blend, lending an inviting perfume to this complex, ageworthy red blend. Drink 2020-2027 Alc 14%
Bodegones del Sur, Amphora Merlot-Tannat, Maldonado/Canelones 2019 93
The youngest generation of one of Uruguay’s best-known wine dynasties delves into the world of natural wines with this impressive debut blend of Tannat and Merlot (50% each) aged in amphora. Juicy, fresh and polished. Drink 2020-2025 Alc 14.8%
Viñedo de los Vientos, Anarkia Tannat, Canelones 2017 93
Tannat, but not as you know it. Pablo Fallabrino was the first Uruguayan to make a foray into natural wine and this no added-sulphite 100% Tannat is pure forest fruit expression, muddled with exotic spice and polished tannins. Drink 2020-2024 Alc 14%
Toscanini, Adagio Espressivo, Canelones 2016 92
This family winery blends Tannat, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in this rich red from Paso Cuello in northern Canelones. Deep fruit intensity lifted with notes of forest herbs and fresh black pepper. Drink 2020-2024 Alc 13.9%
Varela Zarranz, 1888 Marselán, Canelones 2018 92
This stylish natural wine has deep concentration balanced with supple tannins and a long, aromatic finish. Setting the bar high for this promising new variety that’s being planted widely in Uruguay. Drink 2020-2024 Alc 13.8%
Artesana, Tannat-Merlot-Zinfandel, Canelones 2016 89
Each family brings its own unique twist to Uruguay’s wines – and this Californian family planted the country’s first Zinfandel, which adds a juicy plushness to this red blend (55% Tannat, 30% Merlot, 15% Zinfandel). Ideal for summer barbecues. Drink 2020-2023 Alc 13.8%
Bodega Brisas, Altos de José Ignacio Reserve Tannat, Maldonado 2018 89
From the granitic soils of Maldonado on the northern coast, this vibrant and youthful Tannat is a fresh, spicy style of Uruguay’s emblematic grape variety from the sister winery of Garzón. Ideal with grilled lamb. Drink 2020-2023 Alc 14.5%