Ask a roomful of American citizens where Uruguay is and you’ll likely get more than a few blank stares and wild guesses. As I’ve had the good fortune to be introduced to new things from new places, particularly when it comes to food and drink, I could at least place it on a map of the world. I’m sure you’d also find plenty of the folks in that room that prefer to stick with what they might call the tried and true, whether it’s a favorite dish at a favorite restaurant that they’ve eaten dozens of times, or that “go-to” bottle of wine that they buy by the case. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, I’d rather experience all that is on offer from as wide a spectrum as possible. So, when a chance comes along to make a virtual visit to a faraway place like Uruguay for an introduction to what’s happening in their corner of the wine world, I’m all in. If you share that inclination, read on.
Uruguay is a small country located a little south of the center of South America’s eastern coast, sandwiched between Argentina to the south and west, and Brazil to the north. The capital city of Montevideo is east and just slightly south of Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata. The country is the second smallest in Latin America at about the same size as the state of Washington, with a total population of about 3.5 million people—which is fewer than the city of Los Angeles. (The cattle population is much larger at about 11 eleven million.) Uruguay’s humans do a good job at consuming wine, reaching a figure of over 24 liters per person above the age of 18 per year. The country ranks the highest in literacy in South America at 98.7%, ranks first in high-speed internet access, and ranks second in gross domestic product per capita on the continent. They also have one of the higher average life expectancy numbers in Latin America at 78 years.
Could wine consumption be related? I’ll let the scientists figure that out, but I’d say it’s a good bet, and clearly Uruguay has placed their bets accordingly, with over 14,000 acres of vineyards and more than 164 active wineries that produce over 70 million liters of wine annually. The regional soils range from granitic to clay and are influenced by the river deposits in the south and west. The proximity to the river is reminiscent of Bordeaux, which has a similar humid and moderate climate in general. Two ocean currents impact the climate, with the colder south-to-north-moving Malvinas Current dominating in winter, and the warmer north-to-south-moving Brazil Current holding sway in the summer.
Tannat (originally from the Madiran region in southwestern France) is the favored red grape variety to date, joined by Sauvignon Blanc on the white side. Other varieties planted include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Albariño, with more coming online every day. Over 83% of total wine production currently comes from the southernmost “departments” of Canalones, Montevideo and San Jose that surround the city of Montevideo. About 7% of production comes from the eastern zones of Maldonado and Rocha, and the remaining 10% or so comes from western zones along the river and areas north of Canalones to the Brazilian border.
Let’s take a look at some of the wines in detail – all the wines come from the Canelones department with the exception of the Bouza reviewed below (Montevideo Department), the Deicas (San Jose Department) and the Alto de la Ballena (Maldonaldo Department):
Marichal Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($14)
From the Canelones area near Montevideo, this is quite Bordeaux-like in style, with bracing acidity carrying full throttle lemon and soft notes of asparagus and grass. Lively stony minerality knits the elements together through a long, zesty finish. There’s real complexity to this clean, crisp and dry refresher. 92
Bracco Bosca, Atlantida Moscatel “Ombu” 2022 ($16)
There’s enough lanolin character in the aroma profile to elicit a twitch in your nose in this unique Moscatel. It’s pithy, saline and bittering on the palate in a pleasant way, with a retro-nasal lanolin impression lingering in the finish. “Ombu” is a tree that's native to the region, one with an impressive trunk system! 89
Familia Deicas, Juanico Cabernet Franc “Bodegones Del Sur, Vineyard Select” 2020 ($20)
This tasty red hails from the Juanico region in the San Jose Department. It’s delightful Cabernet Franc at a very nice price, and comes off rather like a smoky Beaujolais in character – light in body, but quite full flavored with cherry, balanced charred notes and bright acidity that keeps the flavors pumping. 90
Gimenez Mendez, Las Brujas Tannat Alta Reserva 2020 ($18)
The Las Brujas vineyards are in Canalones about 40 minutes north of Montevideo. This is an edgy Tannat, aged in an American and French oak blend of barrels for 9 months. It’s long on black plum and charred oak aromas and flavors, and dusty tannins accentuate some dried herbs in the finish. 88
Montes Toscanini, Gran Tannat “Unfiltered” 2019 ($59)
This is an impressive assemblage - one that shows that American oak can have its charms when applied carefully to a wine that can take it in. After 18 months in barrels, the result yields aromas and flavors of candied raspberry. blackberry, orange zest, cinnamon, fall spice, soft herbs, It’s long and fully integrated on the finish, showing elegance and power. 94
Pisano, Tannat “RPF” 2018 ($24)
Pisano is located in the Progreso district of Canelones. Owner Daniel Pisano Arretxea says that for this bottling he “did not want to conquer the wine with wood.” Count me among those who applaud such a sentiment. The aim here was at the stylistic fence line between new world and old world, and it’s achieved nicely. It’s very balanced, easy to drink, and approachable now for its fresh red fruit, blueberry, rounded tannins and soft vanilla nuance. 91
Alto de la Ballena, Tannat-Viognier Reserve 2018 ($24)
WIth 15% Viognier in the mix, this goes well beyond the usage of Viognier in most Côte-Rôtie bottlings. The Viognier adds a floral and peach component to the nose and softens up the structure of the Tannat a bit. That said, there’s no shortage of red and black fruit, or acidity here – it keeps the fruit fresh, and the chalky texture keeps everything bright through the finish. 92
Bouza, Tannat-Merlot-Tempranillo “Monte Vide Eu” 2019 ($67)
In this unexpected blend, the three varieties were vinified separately, then blended. The mix arrived at here is a very rich, supple and ready to drink wine showing cherry, blackberry, toast and cedar spice - a fresh piney note in the finish keeps the fruit coming. It’ll hold a few years, but I wouldn’t wait – it’s too good now. 93
Basta Spirit, Vermut Flores “Rosé Vermouth” ($16)
Here’s a surprise – a Tannat Rosé aromatized with 27 botanicals. Basta had the Rosé made at Marichal, and then added various roots, barks, herbs, fruit and such to come up with a singular product. Use it like you would an Amaro or serve it cut with sparkling water and lemon. It’s easily the best Vermouth I’ve ever tasted, and it’s going in my next Negroni. 94
Of special interest to fellow geeks is the country’s National Institute of Viticulture (INAVI), an entity that reports to Uruguay’s Ministry of Agriculture. INAVI regulates, oversees and gathers data on both domestic wine production and wines imported into the country. Uruguay Wine is a division of INAVI that is the worldwide promoter of Uruguay’s wines. One of the group’s more exciting projects is geo-referencing all the vineyard acreage digitally. What this means is that all the data collected on exactly what is planted where, in what type of soil, in what climatic conditions, etc., can be attached to a QR code on the bottle label that can be scanned, giving the consumer color imaging of where the wine comes from down to the plot in a vineyard and all its other specifics. The geo-referencing project started in 2020 and has already categorized most of the countries’ vineyards. The info is currently available in Spanish, with an English version currently in development. For those interested in transparency about product, I think this idea is much more on point than something like an FDA nutrition label.
The bottom line? Uruguay not only has fine wines to offer the world at large with an eye on transparency, but beyond those virtues, the country seems to have its act together on all fronts. I’ve heard tell that it’s an excellent place to retire, which is something I’ll be looking into in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying their unique offerings and dreaming of a visit!