Through football, Uruguay is famous for its street-fighting spirit, forged from lying between the two major giants of South America, Brazil and Argentina. Essentially created as a buffer between the two, Uruguay is a small country of just 3m people which features aspects of both countries - the language has a Brazilian shush to it, while the meat-based food is similar to Argentina’s. Uruguay is, however, quite distinct from the two countries, as its wine shows.
Uruguay is over 1,000km from Mendoza, and unsurprisingly its climate is quite different. Situated on the Atlantic coast, Uruguay is much wetter and more humid than neighbouring Argentina or, indeed, Pacific Chile. This has a big impact: grape varieties must be hardy enough to withstand the humid, wet, and often windy conditions; the vineyard needs a lot of attention; and the style of wine is less ripe and full-bodied. The climate is not dissimilar to Bordeaux’s and, like most of Bordeaux, it’s difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripe.
The historic vineyards of Uruguay are situated around Montevideo, almost in a semi-circle, where Canelones, to the east, is the most known. To the north, on the Brazilian border where the climate gets more humid, is Cerra Chapeu, where the first plantings were in the 1970s. Another recent region is Maldonado, near the ocean and subject to particularly wet, windy weather. Alto de la Ballena were the first winery here, buying their first land in just 2001. There’s a mixture of tradition and innovation, found in other South American countries, that can make Uruguay quite unpredictable.
Tannat dominates plantings and it sets Uruguay apart from other wine-producing regions around the world where the variety is little planted. The grape originates from south-west France, where the main appellation is Madiran, and, like Malbec, it was brought over in the mid-nineteenth century during the wave of phylloxera-driven emigration. It can be a difficult grape to grow, requiring attention in the vineyard to manage its large leaves that can shield grapes from the sun and prevent ventilation, but it’s suited to the climate of Uruguay as its robust berries can withstand fungal pests. It’s planted all over the country, more bitter and tannic near the coast, softer and fuller bodied further inland.
In Madiran, the wines can be incredibly tannic, ready to drink only after many years ageing. This is in part due to the grape variety, but also because of long periods of extraction which make the wine very difficult to drink when young. In Uruguay, the wines are more approachable, due to less extraction and also because the grapes get riper on the vine. Even so, on its own Tannat can be quite astringent and is arguably best in a blend - either in a main or a supporting role. Back in the 1970s, wines from Tannat were often blends to soften the wine, then 100% Tannat took over as international consumers are more receptive to single-varietal wines. Blends are coming back, though; for instance, adding Merlot certainly makes the wine more immediately attractive, while still giving the wine ageing potential.
What I noted about wines from Tannat is that they have a consistent herbal quality, with aromas of fennel, oregano, and tarragon, which makes the wines quite distinctive. Although the fruits are riper than a wine from Madiran, the wines are still not forward or overly expressive. There’s a subtlety to them, with firm tannins to give the wine backbone which allows a period of oak ageing without fear of domination from the oak.
other grape varieties
Quite a few people I met argued that, rather than Tannat, the most suitable grape for Uruguay is Merlot. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult sell, particularly abroad, but Uruguayan wines made from Merlot can be world class. The grape ripens before the autumn rains come and the small berries withstand the humid conditions. The Alto de la Ballena 2010 Merlot was as good a wine as I’ve tasted on this trip so far: smoky, intense red and black fruits, and really alive, despite some age, with high acidity and gripping tannins. It’s what high-quality Merlot tastes like, and it’s a shame that the UK and US markets are so unreceptive to Merlot that the winery is unable to export the wine.
White wines are also high quality. Uruguay’s climate is cool enough for the wines to have refreshing high acidity: Chardonnay is the most planted white grape, but Sauvignon Blanc is more interesting with a crisp, mineral drive. My favourite white wine of the trip was an Albariño, another grape whose thick skins are ideal for holding up to wet weather. From Garzon, a relatively large producer, the Albariño wasn’t quite as floral or aromatic as wines from Rías Baixas often are, but there was a wonderful crisp, stone, mineral aspect to the wine.
It will be interesting to see how Uruguay develops, and if it’s able to make its mark on the world stage in the presence of such major players as Chile and Argentina. Like its football team, the country punches above its weight and the wines are exported to Brazil, Europe, and the US. Tannat is the grape that will continue to drive Uruguay’s market, but if you're visiting look out for the white wines and reds from Merlot and, another grape with high potential, Cabernet Franc.