Exploring Uruguay and its wine regions feels like you’ve just been let in on one of South America’s best kept secrets. One of the smallest countries on the continent, Uruguay doesn’t have the same bombastic personality as some of its Latin American neighbours, but sits as a silent siren for those in the know. Uruguay’s steadily growing economy and progressive politics have made it a haven for international investment, and its sleepy capital city is increasingly cosmopolitan, with Uruguay’s wine culture coming to the fore. As word gets out, there’s no better time to discover its capital, Montevideo, and nearby wine route.
The tortured notes of the ivories being tickled are all the more soul-stirring under candlelight. The pianist expertly pulls us through undulating emotions as he pieces together tango songs that were first written on the streets of Montevideo a century ago. Although this tango dinner show at Primuseum is number one on TripAdvisor, the small collection of warmly lit tables huddled around the piano and its pile of crusty old music sheets is satisfyingly intimate and personal. The friendly waiter pours me another glass of rich Tannat as I dig into my steak and wonder why Montevideo never received the same acclaim for its steak and tango as Buenos Aires.
Tango was, after all, invented between the ports and streets of both cities, and the steak is every bit as good (if not better, dare I say) in this country where cows outnumber people three to one. But Uruguayans don’t boast about their claim to tango or steak. Nor do they often confess that they have the longest carnival in the world – their 40 days makes Rio’s six look positively meagre. ‘We don’t really like to talk about ourselves too much,’ a Uruguayan friend tells me the next evening over wine in a hip urban market, Mercado Ferrando. ‘It just isn’t our style.’
Although no one will admit it, style seems effortless in Montevideo. The streets are a parade of architecture movements ranging from neoclassical giants like the Palacio Salvo and Teatro Solís theatre to belle-époque facades and modernist beach houses, which are all nonchalantly strung together. Even the airport has garnered design awards.
‘Montevideo has more art-deco architecture than any city other than New York – and yet it’s still off the radar as a destination,’ British-born Karen Higgs, author of the Guru’Guay Guide to Montevideo, tells me over coffee in the Old City where she’s been based since 2000. ‘The secret delights of Montevideo are not immediately evident, which is what makes their discovery all the more delightful.’
Montevideo’s streets can in fact feel eerily quiet during the afternoons, and it’s hard to believe that one-third of the country lives here. In the world’s most laid-back capital city, sipping yerba mate on the 22km seafront promenade constitutes a significant portion of weekend plans. In the evening, however, Montevideo is a hive of cultural activity – albeit mainly behind closed doors.
The Old City’s historic bars and cafes are a good place to start, and hark back to the golden era of Uruguay’s literati (including many tango composers). Catching a milonga dance is a quintessential Montevideo experience, but it is perhaps the murga that gives you a deeper insight into the idiosyncrasies of Uruguayan culture. This street performance combining political satire with comedy and song is a pillar of Uruguayan carnival, but performances and rehearsals are held year-round. Another rich cultural expression of Uruguay is candombe – an invigorating dance performed to the beat of many drums, which tells the tales of the African slave experience in Uruguay.
Canelones wine route
From culture to wine, the journey is easy, vineyards appearing before you reach the city limits – nearby Canelones became Uruguay’s prime vine-growing territory in the 20th century precisely because of its proximity to the thirsty domestic market. The mild Atlantic climate is also conducive to quality grape production, with rich clay soils spread across the undulating hillsides which channel refreshing coastal breezes – essential in this more humid climate.
Although Canelones hosts two-thirds of Uruguay’s wine production, 90% of the wineries are family-owned and it is often the family who welcome you in. Most are boutique producers, and each family puts its own unique stamp on its wines – as a result, exploring Canelones provides a wealth of diversity in wine styles and varieties.
‘A big difference in Uruguay [compared to Chile and Argentina] is that we do experience significant vintage variation here, which keeps us on our toes!’ explains Eduardo Boido, winemaker at Bouza, which sits at the gateway of Canelones. ‘Some years are better for white varieties and others for red, but Tannat emerged as Uruguay’s champion because we get great colour, acidity and concentration year on year.’
Tannat is Uruguay’s most widely planted grape variety, but there are many others that show promise, including Albarino. The Bouza family was the first to plant this Galician white grape, which thrives in Uruguay’s similar Atlantic conditions, as an ode to its Galician ancestors. This Spanish flair also makes its way onto the menu at Bouza’s excellent restaurant, which vies for attention with its extensive vintage car collection.
Another top spot for lunch is Artesana, some 30 minutes’ drive deeper into Canelones. This boutique winery was the first to plant Zinfandel, inspired by the California-based owners, and its outdoor restaurant among the vines is an excellent place to sample Uruguay’s only Zinfandel paired with a wood-fire menu.
The Pizzorno family also offers an intimate lunch and tasting, where you can explore its 80-year winemaking heritage and allow your mind – and tannic preconceptions – to be blown by tasting Uruguay’s first carbonic-maceration Tannat.
Another interesting exploration of Tannat is tasting the Familia Deicas terroir range at Juanicó, one of Uruguay’s leading producers with the oldest cellar in the country, constructed in 1830. Other notable historic wine families to visit include Carrau, Antigua Bodega Stagnari, Varela Zarranz and Los Nadies, ranging from major players to boutique.
There’s no lack of cellars to discover tucked into the folds of Canelones and Montevideo, and the wine families of this region will encourage you to continue your discovery of Uruguayan wine by visiting the nearby wine routes of Atlántida, Colonia and Maldonado too. Start planning your next trip to Uruguay now – you’ve just been made privy to South America’s best-kept wine secret.
Fact file: Uruguay
Area planted 6,343ha (26% Tannat)
Exports to 51 countries
Accommodation, restaurant & bar suggestions
For a home away from home, Casa Sarandi B&B offers plenty of character, comfort and all the insider information you could want. A cultural immersion in Montevideo’s Old City.
- Buenos Aires 558, Piso 3, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo 11200
This 1921 art deco hotel is dubbed ‘palace in the sand’ for its prime beachside location in upmarket Carrasco. The epitome of opulent luxury, with handsome suites, a great restaurant, well-stocked cellar and a ritzy casino.
- Rbla Republica de Mexico 6451, 11500 Montevideo
Restaurants & bars
Tucked away in a peaceful corner of Carrasco, this B&B-turned-restaurant has tables set in different rooms of the house and garden, making you feel more like a guest than a diner. The innovative and colourful Uruguayan dishes are top restaurant quality.
- Avenida Bolivia 1323, CP: 11400, Carrasco, Montevideo
Mercado del Puerto
Eating at Montevideo’s main market is more about the all-round experience than the quality. A carnivore’s delight, your eyes will water at the sight of so much asado (slow-cooked barbecue) – and that’s before the smoke hits.
- Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825, Montevideo
If you want a side of tango with your steak, Primuseum is the place for you. This intimate restaurant set in an antiques museum in the Old City serves a Uruguayan tasting menu while local musicians deliver a captivating show.
- Pérez Castellano 1389, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo
- Open: Wednesday-Sunday from 8.30pm
Lo de Porro
Lo de Porro in Las Piedras, a typical bar of yesteryear where wine is served by the jug and pasta is freshly rolled each day.
- Batlle y Ordoñez esq. Garibaldi, Las Piedras
- Open: Tuesday 11am-4pm & 8pm-12am, Wednesday-Saturday 8pm-12am, Sunday-Monday closed
The impressive cellar of Barolo stocks some 160 labels which can be ordered by the glass or flight, or uncorked at Fellini restaurant next door.
- Arocena 2098, 11500 Montevideo
- Barolo: Wednesday-Saturday 8pm-12am
- Fellini: Monday-Friday 8pm-12.30am, Saturday 12pm-4pm & 8pm-12am, Sunday 12pm-4pm
Madirán & Mercado Ferrando
This urban market has several eateries, bars and boutiques ranging from gastronomy book shops to artisanal tap houses. Wine lovers should visit Madirán wine bar for its eclectic selection.
- Chaná 2120 esq. Joaquín de Salterain (Barrio Cordón, Montevideo)
- Open: Monday-Saturday 8am-1am, Sundays 9am-4pm
Montevideo Wine Experience
Under the expert eye (and fluent English conversation) of Nicolás and Liber, a couple of hours here will give you a whirlwind introduction to Uruguayan wine. Stay late for the live music sessions.
- Piedras 300 esquina Colón, Montevideo
- Monday, Wednesday-Sunday 1pm-11pm, Tuesday closed
Montevideo airport has daily flights from Madrid, Miami and Buenos Aires, or you can take a two-hour ferry from Buenos Aires.