Uruguay Wine Remains a Mystery to Many—but That’s About to Change - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Uruguay Wine Remains a Mystery to Many—but That’s About to Change

A hazy Sémillon–Petit Manseng orange wine with a caramelly palate; a fat, floral Torrontés-based pétillant naturel; a fresh, saline Chardonnay sparkler made via solera method; a savory rosé field blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre; a wild-fermented Tannat with velvety tannins and a briny, mixed-berry taste—I sampled each of these maverick wines, and more, recently in Uruguay. The second-smallest country in South America, Argentina’s Atlantic-coast neighbor has a population just over 3.5 million. There are only 160 wineries here, most of them tiny and family-owned. The country’s total vineyard acreage is about 13,550, roughly a third that of Napa. But what Uruguay lacks in volume, it makes up for in quality and diversity. With the latest generation evolving the winemaking in all sorts of ways, there’s no better time than now to explore it. As I discovered over 10 days of traveling and tasting, Uruguay is remarkably under the radar for the excellence of its wines.

Just ask Fabiana Bracco. At Bracco Bosca, her winery in Canelones, Uruguay’s oldest and most productive region, she’s been battling birds. Last year, wild monk parakeets ate nearly 3 acres of Merlot, forcing her to invest $35,000 in protective vine netting for all her vineyards. This year, heat and drought pushed the harvest two to three weeks forward. Yet, “the real challenge,” she tells me, “is for Uruguay to be known.” Bracco worked as an export manager for wineries in Chile and Argentina. She experienced the difficulties of marketing those more-prominent countries abroad. Against Argentina’s 45 percent and Chile’s 36 percent, Uruguay produces just 4 percent of South America’s wines. And, though Bracco Bosca exports to 21 countries, only 10 percent of its 100,000 bottles go stateside, a figure consistent with the wine industry here as a whole. “It might take a lot of time to get Uruguay positioned on the U.S. shelf,” Bracco says.

In the meantime, Uruguayan winemakers are steadily establishing an identity for a relatively young industry, while experimenting to see what the future might hold. Like other producers, Bracco makes more than one wine from Tannat, a red grape of French Basque origin that expresses itself in her vineyard as “wet grass and smoky clover.” Though Jesuits brought vines here in the 1700s, winemaking really took off a century and a half later. That’s when Bracco’s family arrived. Her children are the fifth generation here. Newcomers from Spain and Italy brought an estimated 80-some varieties of grapes, but none did as well as Tannat. Introduced in the 1870s by Basque immigrant Pascual Harriague, whose name is synonymous with it here, Tannat flourished in Canelones’ Atlantic climate and clay soils, and its thick skin helped it survive Uruguay’s high humidity and rainfall. Today, it comprises nearly a third of the country’s production.

Tannat’s trouble is its powerhouse tannins. In France, it’s primarily been a blending grape. In Uruguay, where it’s bottled as a single varietal, Tannat was traditionally brooding and heavily oaked. In recent decades, producers have eased up on maceration and barrel aging to achieve approachable, food-friendly wines. Beneath a pergola beside her winery restaurant, Bracco’s single-parcel Ombú Tannat has the leathery elegance to handle a lunch of grilled mackerel with leek sauce.

In Uruguay … Tannat was traditionally brooding and heavily oaked. In recent decades, producers have eased up on maceration and barrel aging to achieve approachable, food-friendly wines.

But she isn’t just focused on Uruguay’s signature grape. Like her immigrant predecessors, she’s been playing with many varietals. She serves her fruity amphora Syrah chilled. She co-ferments Merlot and Ugni Blanc in concrete for a Claret to pair with sweetbreads, a staple in this cattle-rich country. And she makes a white-produced blanc de noire from Black Muscat, or Moscatel de Hamburgo, Uruguay’s second-most planted grape, otherwise used for bulk wine. “Everyone told me Moscatel was only for girls that only drank sweet wine. But the Jesuits planted it. It’s high yield and our first grape,” says Bracco. Dry and floral with notes of peach, her version could rehabilitate the varietal.

An hour northwest of her on the other end of Canelones, a region that hugs the capital city of Montevideo like a helmet, Juan Andrés Marichal is innovating at his own family winery. From the table wine his great-grandfather produced in the early 1900s to the 1980s mass replanting that his father took part in to new parcels of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Albariño he’s installing himself, “the history of Bodega Marichal is the history of winegrowing in Uruguay,” he tells me. Though he makes a chewy, oaky Grand Reserve using 45-year-old vines and a balanced, structured Reserve with vines half that age, his screw-cap Tannat is a different wine altogether. Unoaked and cold-macerated from young vines, skins removed after fermentation, it’s an easy-drinking red boasting of bright, cherry flavors and a touch of earth. The rest of his 74 acres of Tannat goes into a vermouth that supports a bespoke tapas bar in downtown Montevideo. Containing 27 botanicals, Vermut Flores Rosé melds subtle cake spice notes, salinity, and a grapefruity bitterness, with enough dryness to use in a Martini.

Uruguay wine
 The Pisano family (from left, Daniel, Eduardo, and Gustavo). | Photo courtesy of Bodega Pisano

In the nearby town of Progreso, the Pisanos are now on their 100th vintage. While his father, Eduardo, tends to the vines and his uncle, Daniel, manages sales, fourth-generation winemaker Gabriel Pisano vinifies the winery’s classics along with another uncle, Gustavo. The wines include their Río de Los Pájaros Torrontés, a steely, less aromatic version of Argentina’s floral white wine, from vines the elder generation brought in 40 years ago; and Pisano Arretxea Gran Reserva Tannat, a dark, concentrated tribute to his grandmother that spends 18 months in new French oak. For his own label, Viña Progreso, the younger Pisano uses Torrontés for a pretty, round pét-nat, and he ferments whole clusters of it for his silky, salty Barrel-less Tannat. He calls what he does “experimental,” and his family supports his efforts.

“I can work on both ends of the rope, continuing the family fine wines tradition and having my own company where I am free to develop my own ideas.”—Gabriel Pisano

“I consider myself lucky,” he tells me over glasses of smoky, meaty Viña Progreso Cabernet Franc. “I can work on both ends of the rope, continuing the family fine wines tradition and having my own company where I am free to develop my own ideas.” “The younger generation has to do their own thing,” his uncle Daniel pipes in. “But we don’t let him use our importers.”

Not every Uruguayan winemaker has dynastic roots. At Bodega Spinoglio in the urban region of Montevideo, Daniel Spinoglio has turned the historic winery that his family bought in 1961 into a custom-crush facility. He makes 80 different bottles for clients who lack their own facilities—producers like Cerro del Toro, launched by Japanese and Norwegian investors. From his own vines, which he dry-farms in clay and limestone soils, Spinoglio produces a plummy, Pomerol-style Merlot; a Tannat rosé that tastes of underripe strawberries; and an apple-tart, unoaked Chardonnay. But his work for other labels has given him a bird’s-eye view of his country’s terroir. I taste a mellow, friendly blend of his that’s so new, it was yet unnamed. “The goal was to create a picture of Uruguay in the wine,” he says. The Tannat in it came from his own estate, as well as from up north in the red soils of Rivera on the Brazilian border. Its Cabernet Franc hailed from the humid northwest along the Uruguay River. And the Petit Verdot was sourced from Maldonado, the emergent region east of the capital.

The latter region intrigued me the most. There, just inland from fabled beach towns, vines grow inigneous and calcareous soils on plots swept by the virazón, or ocean wind. At Montevideo’s Bodega Bouza, I tasted a Riesling that shows the potential of Maldonado’s oceanic terroir. The grapes came from Bouza’s vineyard on steep slopes four miles from the Atlantic, where the diurnal swing slows their maturation, allowing the development of complex phenolics. Fermented in steel and aged in the bottle a year before release, the wine has the heady aroma, stalwart minerality, and lusciousness of a Riesling from Germany’s Mosel. “We had wanted to make it,” Bouza winemaker Eduardo Boido says, “but we waited until we had the right site.”

Uruguay Wine
Photo courtesy of @bodegagarzon

Maldonado’s emergence is thanks, in large part, to energy mogul Alejandro Bulgheroni, who purchased a wooded, coastal valley not far from the gaucho town of Garzón, intending to install a wind farm. Transported by the site’s beauty, his wife, Bettina, convinced him to consider a different use, and the research landed on grapes. With the help of noted consultant Alberto Antonini, he planted his first vines in its sandy, decomposed granite soils in 2008. The next year, he broke ground on the monumental, LEED-certified Bodega Garzón. Just 620 acres of Bulgheroni’s 3,500-acre property is under vine. Protected, subtropical forest covers as much land. From the balcony atop the winery, which is built into the hillside, the view reveals the biodiversity of a place where ostrich-like rheas roam. Says Germán Bruzzone, Garzón’s young winemaker, “The natural areas bring health to the vines, with beneficial insects. If it’s a comfortable place for wild animals, it’s comfortable for grapes.”

Though organic farming is difficult in Uruguay’s humidity, Bruzzone eschews herbicides and sows cover crops to fertilize between rows. He favors Marselan, which is more resistant to mildew and doesn’t often need spraying. Garzón’s intense, textural Marselan Reserva has me picturing dark fruit flung against a granite wall. White wines—a briny sparkling Chardonnay, a flinty Sauvignon Blanc, the mouth-filling, savory Petit Clos Albariño—also show well in these cool, coastal temperatures. But the powerhouse here is a Tannat-heavy blend that spends 20 months in untoasted French oak and a couple more years in the bottle before release. Meaty and smoky, with a creamy texture and graceful tannins, it’s what to drink with a steak at the winery’s restaurant, helmed by the famed Argentinean grill master, Francis Mallmann.

Meaty and smoky, with a creamy texture and graceful tannins, [the Tannat-heavy blend is] what to drink with a steak at the winery’s restaurant, helmed by the famed Argentinean grill master, Francis Mallmann.

The showcase winery, and Garzón’s success in the export market, has helped attract other producers to Maldonado. Some, like Cerro del Toro, are outside investors. Peruvian expat Edmond Borit started planting the slopes of the Sierra de Carapé an hour north of Pan de Azúcar in 2014. At his wild valley estate, Sacromonte, capybaras wade in the irrigation pond. Vineyards are weeded by sheep. Overnight visitors like me sleep in high-end, pre-fab refugios perched on hilltops and sip wines at the rustic cliffside restaurant. Schist soils and chilly nights yield structured wines. Named after the hills, the flagship Carapé, a blend of the six grapes—Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan, and Syrah—balances its fruit with 14 months in French oak. I prefer its unoaked counterpart, Seis Cepas, an aromatic, approachable assemblage with a luxurious mouthfeel.

Others who’ve come to Maldonado are from Canelones’ established families. Familia Deicas, one of Uruguay’s largest producers at 3.5 million annual bottles, has acquired 12 vineyards throughout the country, including one near Bodega Garzón. That allows third-generation winemaker Santiago Deicas to pepper the best attributes of different regions into his blends. The minerality and bloodiness in the Deicas’ Tannat comes from the schist-laden northwest, the abundant blueberry and clove flavors from clay-heavy Canelones, and the briny freshness from Maldonado. His Atlantico Sur Albariño is made with grapes grown at Establecimiento Juanicó, the historic Canelones winery they purchased in 1979, blended with those from Maldonado’s granite soils. Made to enjoy young, it has an intoxicating florality and tutti-frutti panache with a seaside backbone.

Those attributes stand out in his whites, says Deicas, because the wines are wild fermented and made with minimal sulfur, methods adopted upon the insistence of another famed consultant who works in Uruguay, Paul Hobbs. Deicas has gone further in his experimentation. He co-ferments Sémillon and Petit Manseng in the skin-contact Orange Bizarra Extravaganza. Looking at this cloudy, apricot-colored wine in the glass, I expect it to be funky. But Deicas stops skin contact early, adds a touch of sulfites, and uses the antioxidants in the dead yeast to absorb oxygen compounds, all to decrease bacteria in the wine. The result is caramelly-rich and delicious. With a gonzo cartoon on the label, it’s a low-cost, out-of-the-box stunner.

Yet, Deicas still embraces his family’s flagship, the brawny red blend, Preludio. Establecimiento Juanicó has a cellar that predates the Jesuits’ expulsion from Uruguay in 1767. A cavernous basement of mold-covered arches, it’s where the family ages Preludio, and when Hobbs saw it, he wanted the barrels moved to a new warehouse. The family pulled their barrels out, only to realize that the wine no longer had the same identity. A few years later, they returned it to the cellar. “We say, ‘It needs more cava,’ ” Deicas says, the Spanish word they use to refer to the cellar. “There’s a special fungus down here.” Some wine-making traditions in Uruguay, he implies, need no updating.

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