Uruguay: The Undiscovered
Tannat has undoubtedly brought Uruguay under the global spotlight. Consumers and connoisseurs alike turned their heads to this under-the-radar winemaking haven; their tender hand to a difficult grape allowed the world to take notice. Now that they’ve piqued our interest, Tannat only scratches the surface. With an array of soil types, altitudes, aspects, and a maritime climate, these microclimates, even within their more defined regions, have unearthed a potential of fascinating wines to discover. Winemakers are now moving beyond Tannat and playing an intricate game of matchmaking to see which varieties and areas will produce a fruitful marriage. And we have a lot to taste and discover on the journey.
Uruguay’s Atlantic influence mimics many similar maritime-influenced countries of the Northern Hemisphere. Think Bordeaux, Portugal, and Spain—especially in Northwest Spain and northern Portugal where a grape called Alvarinho or Albariño thrives and is known to have originated. The grape will vary from place to place but is generally known for producing wines with nervy acidity and higher intensity of flavors—from luscious florals to juicy melon, a sea-inspired saltiness, and a distinctly pleasing bitter-almond-skin quality on the finish. In Uruguay, they’re also producing eye-opening versions of this variety, and it’s quickly gaining status as the hot newcomer.
Bodega Bouza experiments with the variety. They took cuttings from their family’s vineyards in Rías Baixas; they were the first to plant the variety in the country in 2002. Their single-varietal bottling has become one of their most sought-after bottlings with pronounced juicy pear notes and a perfumed nose. Its structure comes from a small percentage of fermenting oak with four months on the lees. Powerhouse Bodega Garzón and winemaker Germán Bruzzone produce two Albariños—its more friendly Reserva quickly gaining status and recognition while its higher-end version comes from a single-vineyard parcel. Both see time on the lees, and experimentation with barrel-aging may be in the works. They first planted the variety in 2010 after noticing the granitic soils in the vineyard that are strikingly similar to those in Portugal and Spain.
The white wine love doesn’t stop there. Viognier found some success in Argentina and Chile, and eventually, vineyards found their way to Uruguay. As of 2009, there were 79 acres in Uruguay. This white variety, which also can produce intensely flavored and floral wines, has been used in experimentation by houses like Garzón, Don Pascual, and Viña Progreso, who make single varietal wines or others who have used it as a blending partner. Taking inspiration from their Rhône counterparts, you may see Viognier blended in with Syrah and even Tannat—like Alta de la Ballena’s Tannat-Viognier blend which has become one of their emblematic bottlings.
You may also see it blended with Petit Manseng. Bodega Cerro Chapeu, located in the northern part of the country and founded by the pioneering Francisco Carrau, has a bottling whispered about by connoisseurs and sommeliers. The grape variety is another transplant from Southwest France, usually found in the sweet wines of Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl or Jurançon. But here, the Gran Tradicion 1752 is a blend of about 85 percent Petit Manseng and 15 percent Viognier. The wine is dry with searing acid but plump, ripe, and juicy.
Even when you think you may see some climatic similarities, that hasn’t stopped Uruguayan winemakers from trying their hand at any variety that may be fun, innovative, and just juicy and delicious. Keep digging, and there’s experimental bottlings from Verdejo to Gewürztraminer to Riesling to Ugni Blanc pét-nat from Bodega Proyecto Nakkal in Canelones. But there’s also something to be said for classics—such as fresh Sauvignon Blanc and gracious versions of Chardonnay. Viña Edén’s vineyard holdings are Tannat, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Their Chardonnay bottlings are elegant and mineral with oceanic influence—feeling cool-climate in nature. So much so that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used for Champagne method sparkling and their Pinot Noir for rosé.
Hot on the Heels
Speaking of reds, they don’t stop at Tannat either. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah have found great success in Uruguay—their familiarity with consumers most likely is attributing to its popularity but Uruguay’s own spin makes these wines juicy but with its Atlantic influence, still lifted and elegant. However, there’s another underrated Cabernet making waves. Viña Progreso and Alta de la Ballena make versions of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But it’s their Cabernet Franc that has been of interest, due to peppery and perfumed qualities along with technical favor—early ripening that works well in Uruguay’s humid climate. Cabernet Franc is also seen in blends—including Garzón’s famed Balasto, a blend of 45 percent Tannat with 25 percent Cabernet Franc rounded out with Petit Verdot, and Uruguay’s other surprising young star—Marselan.
Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha, was made in 1961. The grape does surprisingly well here and accounts for close to 346 acres of vineyards in the country. It’s the 2nd largest producer of the grape behind France. Familia Deicas has made bottlings of Marselan under their Atlántico Sur line—showcasing the influence of the Atlantic on this grape variety. The result is a wine that is structured and full of red fruit flavors like raspberry and sour cherry.
Just as the whites, experimental red wines are popping up as well. A few producers use Arinarnoa, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, such as Familia Bresesti in Canelones and Cerro Chapeu. Did we forget to mention the Italians? Those varieties seem to make headway as well. If you look, you may find Nebbiolo or Barbera. Pablo Fallabrino owns and makes wines at Bodega Pablo Fallabrino in Atlantida. Influenced by his family’s roots, Fallabrino produces Piedmontese varieties in his mere 42 acres of vineyards. He makes a single-varietal Barbera wine and his Notos bottling—a Tannat and Nebbiolo blend. It looks as if there’s a lot more to discover in Uruguay—even in the smallest of places.