In the 19th century, French Basque settlers brought the Tannat grape into Uruguay, a small bucolic nation to the northeast of Buenos Aires. Today, Uruguay is a welcoming, liberal, and forward-looking country with lush grasslands, virgin beaches, and no traffic jams. Cattle, mostly reared on grass, outnumber people by four-to-one, and an invitation to stay for lunch typically takes the form of “Would you like an entrecôte?”Many people assume that Uruguay is a tropical country, but, at 35 degrees South, the capital of Montevideo shares a similar latitude to Colchagua in Chile, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, and McLaren Vale in Australia. Uruguay is at the northern end of the cold Falklands Current, and the Atlantic Ocean exerts a strong moderating influence, as does the immense Plata Estuary at the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Indeed, the climate in and around Montevideo is often compared to that of Bordeaux, although average temperature and average rainfall are both higher. The most common training systems are espaldera alta (VSP) and lyre to mitigate against high humidity and minimize frost damage.
The terrain in Uruguay is mostly flat or gently undulating. The coastal and more populated south of the country accounts for some 90% of production, and the Canelones department around Montevideo accounts for some two-thirds of that. The soils in Canelones are for the most part limestone clay. Other centres of viticulture include Carmelo near the Argentine border, and Garzón to the east in the Maldonado department. Garzón is noted for its rockier granitic soils and slightly cooler climate and has seen some heavy investment especially from Argentina.
Uruguay counts around 180 wineries, often run by the third or fourth generation of Italian, Basque, or Catalonian settlers. From the 1970s, these families shifted from bulk to quality wine production, with a focus on Tannat which has come to account for more than a quarter of the ~6,500ha under vine. In my time in Uruguay, I tasted every possible style of Tannat, including a soft, ‘nouveau’ style made by carbonic maceration (at Pizzorno) and even a sparkling style made by traditional method double fermentation (at Pisano). The signature full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied with high tannins, balanced alcohol, and refreshing, multiform acidity. Compared to Madiran or Irouléguy (which are also Tannat or Tannat-dominated), it is likely to be softer, with slightly higher alcohol and more spiciness than minerality.
Other important grape varieties in Uruguay include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and I also tasted successful examples of Petit Verdot, Riesling, Syrah, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Viognier… Because there are many parallels between Garzón and Galicia, I was very curious to taste the Albariño from Bodega Garzón: compared to its Old World counterpart, it is fuller and riper, with notes of white peach, canteloupe melon, honey, fennel, sage, and cardamom, a bitter and balancing backbone, and a long and salty finish.
Because Uruguay has no appellation system, the wineries have a very free hand to experiment and respond to consumer tastes. With some ‘softening’ blends, this can seem as much a curse as a blessing—by which I mean, if you’re going to put 20% Viognier into your Tannat, you might as well be making Merlot.
Unfortunately, Uruguayan wines can be hard to source. Compared to Chile and Argentina, production is small and artisanal, and the silver beaches around Punta del Este are a magnet for well-heeled (and often high-heeled) Argentine and Brazilian tourists. Still, most wineries are keen to export their wines and show the world what they can do.
Favourite producers include Pisano (the RPF range is especially good value), Antigua Bodega Stagnari (try if you can the Osiris), Bouza (pronounced ‘Bow-za’), Familia Deicas, Garzón, de Lucca, Marichal, Pizzorno, and Viñedo de los Vientos. 2018 is an exceptional vintage in Uruguay, while 2014, owing to harvest rains, is the weakest in recent years.
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting