“When Uruguay started to make fine wines, we didn’t have our own experience. So, we started to make wines looking at Argentina, Chile, or France. We did these things because they worked in other places. But we finally found that those things didn’t work for us,” sums up Santiago Degasperi, oenologist at Bodega Océanica José Ignacio in Uruguay. “Now, we’ve learned what is working in Uruguay and what we can do to improve it. We want to improve our strengths but also our weaknesses; it’s a bit of a Renaissance.”
Uruguay has a rich winemaking tradition. Still, it is truly growing into itself in its current state, stitching together traditional winemaking knowledge with innovative and progressive visions. Christian Wiley, Managing Director of Bodega Garzón, has witnessed the trajectory himself. “There has been a massive change between 2000 and 2010, then from 2010 to 2020. And it will continue.” And it seems only to be scratching the surface.
Defining Microclimates and Terroir
The idea of Uruguayan wine or even the pairing of Uruguay with Tannat, its flagship grape, is somewhat of a monolith. In reality, winemakers explore the many microclimates and soil types that lie within the country’s borders and figure out how to untap its potential.
Santiago Degasperi is the winemaker at Bodega Oceanica Jose Ignacio, located in one of the more popular luxury seaside destinations on the Atlantic coast. The winery is known to bridge the gap between more traditional wine expressions and intriguing projects. One of those fascinating projects—aging bottles in the ocean itself. Degasperi’s innovation doesn’t end there. He also founded Proyecto Nakkal in 2020 with two friends, searching out old vineyards and lesser-used varieties such as Ugni Blanc and Moscato Ottonel for pét-nats and making his reds with as little intervention as possible. In seeking out these vineyards, he’s come to discover that depending on where you are in the country, the difference in the outcome of wines is monumental. He explains, “Wines from the East are one thing; in the South, we have other wines, and the North gives us others.” Other wineries such as Cerro Chapeu are experimenting with more aromatic grape varieties in their iron-rich soils near the northern Brazilian border. Others are using the influence of the River Plate in Colonia and the Atlantic influence on the coast in Canelones and Maldonado, where Bodega Océanica is based.
Bodega Garzón was one of the first properties in Maldonado and in all their vineyards, they’re experimenting with the aspects and influences from parcel to parcel. Christian Wylie has been Managing Director for Garzon since 2016 after an illustrious career at top Chilean wineries. He explains, “You have Pinot Noir when you are facing Northwest, Petit Verdot when you face South. When facing toward the Atlantic, you’re protected from the sun, that’s Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc. Then you face north, and you’re protected from the wind and exposed to the sun, there’s Cabernet Franc and Marselan.”
It’s truly unique in where the country is situated. Daniel Pisano, a 4th-generation owner at Bodega Pisano, is acutely aware they have a unique position globally. “We are 20 kilometers from the ocean with a lot of sea influence. I like to say we have Burgundy soils with a Bordeaux climate. We’re the only South American country producing wine on the Atlantic Ocean. We have a personality like no other. There’s a place for all of these wines that truly reflect the producer.”
Daniel Pisano is a farmer at heart. He is one of three brothers that run Bodega Pisano, a business that has been in his family for four generations. He grew up in the vineyards and has watched the rise of Tannat, but Pisano’s range of wines is highly diversified. He explains, “We don’t have indigenous varieties here. We have European grapes and mostly from French origin, so instead, we offer our version of Tannat, Merlot, or Viognier.” The Pisano family is of European descent—Francesco Pisano came to the region from Liguria in Italy. The family planted vineyards in the town of Progreso in Canelones on the Atlantic Coast. It’s only natural that the Pisano family could take European grape varieties and give them a distinct Uruguayan style—a style that could revive even the toughest of grapes. After all, they’ve done it before. Daniel believes Petit Verdot could be next in the running for global fame. “We planted Petit Verdot many years ago, and it behaves like Tannat. We went over to France, and they said to me, ‘You know Tannat, awful here. Just like Petit Verdot, never ripening.’ But in Uruguay, Tannat ripens beautifully. Petit Verdot does too. It’s intense and spicy.” He continues, “It’s a hard sell, though. Nobody knows it.”
And the same for Cabernet Franc. The grape is a clear frontrunner for smaller producers and Garzón alike, but with mass consumers only familiar with the variety as a Bordeaux blending grape, it vies for attention. The variety has excellent potential for Gabriel Pisano, Daniel’s nephew, who is also a winemaker. Gabriel worked in the family winery but traveled around, gaining experience in the US, South Africa, Spain, and Chile, and came back to Uruguay ready to change the status quo. He started his project, Viña Progreso Bodega Experimental, in 2009. The name itself gives away his contemporary philosophy, and his single-varietal Cabernet Franc is just one example. It’s not just the different grape varieties, but it’s also his approach to traditional winemaking methods. He tends to Tannat a bit differently than in the past. “For us, Tannat is important, and it’s the wine that distinguishes ourselves from the rest of the world. Of course, we are doing more things, more wines, and we have beautiful things to show, but we can’t forget to pay attention to our main variety to be present in other markets. My objective is to show a little wilder fruit style in Tannat with more acidity.” Santiago, also part of a newer guard, agrees with fresher, acidic styles of Tannat than what has been made in the past. “We communicate a younger way of drinking wine or a little bit less serious way of drinking. But at the same time, good quality winemaking. We are making fresher Tannat. We’re not the only ones doing that. It’s a smaller movement.”
A White Wedding
But before we even get to explore new reds on the export market, Albariño is the rising star, and everyone is a fan. Daniel laughs, “Albariño is new and increasing plantation. Pisano didn’t have Albariño, and the market is forcing us to plant it because when we go to a wine fair, for example, and we show our Tannat, they ask, do you have an Albariño also?” Gabriel agrees that this is the right place to do it, “Another thing that Uruguay is doing great is white wine. With the climate, the presence of the sea or the ocean, winds, hilly, cold nights, everything you read in a book that you need for great white wine, we have it.”
Bodega Garzón was started by Argentinian businessmen, Alejandro Bulgheroni. This significant investment in Uruguayan wine has undoubtedly shown the country’s wine to the world with a major focus on global export. Garzón made people pay attention, and now they want people to pay attention to the potential of Albariño. Wylie continues, “And when I was here in 2000, 2005, the whites were not so lovely. We’ve been successful with Albariño; it’s the second most planted variety here for us. We have 80 acres of Albarino—the largest producer of it in the Americas, and it’s super successful. “Wines that are drinkable young are sexy, and it’s working.”
A Sustainable Future
Garzón is a sprawling, sustainable, and LEED-certified estate in Maldonado. Christian also believes that new approaches to vineyard management and sustainable practices are important for Uruguay in the future. “I think sustainability is huge, which wasn’t part of the Uruguayan rhetoric at all. It’s a natural country, and they’ll tell you that because it’s empty. But we intervened in this beautiful land. There are no fences; we have ostriches, capybaras, foxes, wild boars, and tons of birds here in the vineyard. Biodiversity, diversity, and sustainability.” Others have their own approaches to this idea. For example, Santiago and Proyecto Nakkal have taken to searching for old vineyards, varieties moot, for preservation’s sake. In turn, they work these grapes with as little intervention as possible.
The diversity of Uruguay’s future in wine from big exports from Bodega Garzón to smaller producers like Santiago and Gabriel to multi-generational family wineries like Pisano, one thing is sure: they all need to work together. Daniel explains, “We need as producers to expand, not to become huge or not for development. It’s just to maintain our way of life because otherwise many wineries that do not export, they drown in the domestic market and disappear.” He continues, “Some small producers say no to these larger producers, but in our case, the big producer is the one that can maintain the culture of our wine in the world. We compete a lot here locally, but we need to help each other. When we’re the first, it’s hard to sell, but when it’s five, six, seven, eight, or nine producers in the global market. Then people say, what’s happening with the Uruguayans? Let’s try the Uruguayan wines.”