Uruguay: a story of boutique wineries and big wines

Uruguay has long been known as a beach destination that provides everything from the rustic and unplugged Cabo Polonia in the north-east to the playground of the continent’s yachting class in Punta del Este. Recently however, tourism has been moving off the sands and inland, largely thanks to a small dark red grape, Tannat.

Some 35 years ago a quiet revolution began in the wineries of the country; standard practices in the vineyards and the cellar were completely changed as new ideas flowed in, vineyards were re-planted to vines of world class quality and equipment upgraded to modern standards. In the 90s their new vines and techniques came of age and with the support of international consultants from California, Australia and New Zealand, they started exporting wines good enough to catch the eye of top critics and sommeliers.

In Tannat they had a unique and almost unheard of grape, and though considerably less romantic than their neighbours’ Malbec or Carmenere it is a capable of making powerful, elegant and most of all, interesting wines. This grape, originally from Madiran, France, found in Uruguay a climate and soils which allowed it to develop and mature like it never had in European soils where it is seen as a harsh, unruly and overly tannic wine. In fact it grew so well that it was only once wine-makers begun to drastically cut back the amount of grapes produced that its true potential for quality wine showed.

So Uruguay developed its boutique wine industry, focusing on low quantity production, high quality wines and packaging them with the charm which the small, family owned wineries have in spades. They got a foot in the international wine world’s door with the curiosity keys: Have you ever tasted a Tannat? How about a wine from Uruguay? And once interest was piqued they followed up with a range of good quality wines. Beyond huge, inky Tannats with well tamed tannins (and a number of very good blends) their white wines are excellent; Sauvignon Blancs are crisp and fruity with many examples showing a tendency to develop grapefruit notes and a particular treat is an Italian variety Albariño with richly perfumed aromas and high acidity.

In recent years exports have continued growing and international recognition expanding and in 2005 a group of family owned wineries got together to form Las Caminos del Vino (The Wine Roads) with the goal of developing a tourism infrastructure to meet a growing demand from visitors. Since then they have set four principal dates in the annual calendar that any visitor would do well to bear in mind as these festivals offer a unique chance to get to know the wineries, their wines and the people involved.

During each festival the wineries involved will offer tastings and set menus and during the harvest and pruning period, the chance to get your hands dirty in the Uruguayan vineyards.

March – Harvest Festival

June – Tannat and Lamb Festival (Tannat and the rich, fatty Uruguayan lamb make a spectacular pair.)

August – Pruning Festival and Creole Cuisine

November – Wine and Arts Festival

For more details look up their website www.loscaminosdelvino.com.uy

A number of other wineries not involved in this group have excellent offerings for tourists all year round. The boutique winery Bodega Bouza, only ten minutes from Montevideo, stands out as an ultra-professional enterprise with a top class restaurant on the premises and offering daily tours. In 2013 the newly founded Bodega Garzón on the coast near Punta del Este will open its multi-million dollar estate and tasting rooms to the public.

The best way to really get to know Uruguayan wine is to get a map, a rental car and spend a few weeks visiting small wineries on out of the way routes. You should always call beforehand to make arrangements, but it is well worth the extra effort as you can easily find yourself drinking a glass of Uruguay’s finest along with the owner or winemaker and quickly falling under the spell of this country’s charm.

When to go?

Summer is peak season in Uruguay and so prices and tourist traffic are significantly increased. Still, if you love the lively beach vibe, this is your time. Do bear in mind that in January you will find most of the wineries understaffed or even closed for the summer holidays.

Spring or early autumn are the best months to visit as the crowds have thinned out, the weather is temperate and warm and the winemakers have moved into a time of relative calm.

How to find your way around?

For an excellent resource for current events and information on some 60 wineries around the country look up: www.bodegasdeluruguay.com.uy

A new book Guía de Bodegas y Vinos de Uruguay (Guide to the Wineries and Wines of Uruguay, co-written by Greg de Villiers) will also be an invaluable resource for planning your tour. It is available in most bookstores around the country and features a series of maps and detailed information on 33 wineries and their wines.

Jim Lutz is the Founder of Vaya Adventures.

If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Comments (2)

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  1. Flashpacker says:

    We’ve visited many vineyards as part of our around the world trip, one of the best being in Adelaide. However, we do plan to travel to South America soon and I hadn’t considered doing a wine tour in Uruguay, but this is something I no have to experience on my travels. I am a fan of new world wines.

  2. Ted says:

    Cool article, although I am not sure why Tannat would be “less romantic” than Malbec or Carmenere? Bodega Garson is definitely not to be missed–quite an impressive project.

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