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Uruguay: The Lay of the Land

Uruguay: The Lay of the Land

When South American wine comes up in conversation, it’s an undoubtedly lustful dialogue on decadent meats with deep, rich Malbecs in Argentina or even Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. But nestled to the Southeast of the continent is the fourth-largest winegrowing region in the continent that deserves more collective attention.

Uruguay sits south of Brazil and to the east of the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. Its capital, Montevideo, sits on the same latitude as the latter and Santiago and its major winemaking region, Maipo Valley. Its unique warm temperate climate with cool Atlantic influence makes this region starkly different from other South American countries. Many compare it with that of Bordeaux, and with close to 99 recognized soil types, this area is prime for experimentation and distinction.

Wine regions | Photo credit: Uruguay Wine

Sitting in the coastal center is the capital of Montevideo. Nearly half the population of Uruguay lives here, which has allowed the surrounding regions of vineyard land to grow exponentially over the past 40 years. It is also a stone’s throw from the region of Canelones—one of the country’s most important as it holds 60 percent of the country’s wine production. With its rich, dense, and calcareous soil, the country’s emblematic grape is well-suited. Tannat is a thick-skinned, tannic variety that can withstand the rainfall and humidity of the country’s proximity to the ocean. The region is home to many of the country’s family-owned and flagship wineries, such as Familia Deicas, Bodega Bouza, Viña Progreso, and Pisano.

To the east of Canelones is another of Uruguay’s important growing regions—Maldonado. This region has a landing pad for significant investments, most notably from Argentine Alejandro Bulgheroni who established Bodega Garzón, which has been the most considerable undertaking in the country with high global exposure. The winery itself is state-of-the-art and entirely sustainable, with 593 acres of vineyard holdings comprised of more than 15 different varieties.  Familia Deicas, Viña Edén, Alto de la Ballena, and Bodega Oceánica José Ignacio are notable names from this area that benefit from a more maritime influence and higher elevated hillsides. The soil here is made up of granite, rock, and sand. It boasts beneficial drainage that suits the growth of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and of course, Tannat.

Rocha region | Photo credit: Uruguay Wine

Traveling east, the regions of Lavalleja and Rocha hold few vineyard sites but are exciting new prospects. Familia Deicas has grapes growing on a small parcel of volcanic soil, while Rocha’s proximity to the coast is enticing more adventurous winemakers to start new experimental projects.

West of Montevideo is the historical region of Colonia. UNESCO designated part of the town itself as a World Heritage Site for its significance and authenticity. It also sits on the Río de la Plata or River Plate, which separates this region from Argentina. This body of water is warmer than the Atlantic, and the resulting soil stays rich and suited for red wines. This and its location allows Colonia to thrive as a wine tourism destination. Narbona Wine Lodge is located here, where the current winery is an homage to its original conception—one of the first wineries in the country established in 1909 by Juan de Narbona.

Other regions of note are San José to the west of Montevideo, with some of the oldest vineyards in the country. Durazno is central, known to is keep warmer temperatures with clay and sandy soils, suited to thick-skinned and late-picked varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon where wineries like El Capricho are paving the way. The last of note is Rivera which sits in the Northeast of the country, bordering Brazil’s famed Campanha region. Cerro Chapeau has made a name for itself in this region, making minimal-intervention wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Tannat that grow in the region’s red, sandy soils.

So… how did we get here?

The country’s burgeoning wine production has been consistently growing. Uruguay is now home to 880 producers discovering its far reaches of an abundance of terroirs. But before we dive into the future of Uruguayan wine, how did we get here?

Uruguay saw widespread immigration from Mediterranean countries in the 2nd half of the 19th century, most notably from Italy and the Basque region. Two vineyards were consequential and planted in 1870—one by the Catalan Francisco Vidiella Colon and the other from the Basque Pascual Harriague. Harriague brought with him a grape from a neighbor of his native land, Southwest France. This grape, aptly named Harriague, affectionately became the El Emblema.

Tannat | Photo credit: Uruguay Wine

But Uruguay wasn’t spared from pesky phylloxera—a louse pandemic that originated in Europe in the late 1800s. It hit the country in 1898 and its caretakers eventually kept the disease at bay with fires and by regrafting vines onto American rootstock. Tannat, the more well-known pseudonym of Harriague, still proved well-suited to the terroir.

In 1988, out of fear of losing the country’s spirit of their winegrowing heritage to outside investments from other South American goliaths, Uruguay formed the National Institute of Vitiviniculture. Their main goal was twofold—to plant vinifera varieties and focus on organic and “pure” farming practices. This proved successful; the country itself was marked as the 3rd most environmentally sustainable by the 2004 World Economic Forum. Subsequently, Tannat has become synonymous with Uruguay and may be the Argentine Malbec gateway for global recognition.