In November of last year one of the wine industry’s most venerable magazines, the Quarterly Wine Review, ceased publication. Wine, says owner Richard Elia, has lost its romance. The charm, the characters, the gentle hedonism, the mischievous sparkle; all have been losing ground at a devastating rate to marketing and point systems. In many ways he is right, from huge companies whose product just happens to be wine, to raging consumerism and out of control bandwagons, things can look a little bleak from a certain angle. A recent YouTube video shows a sommelier vigorously molesting his glass of wine (his glass in this case being a convenient lab beaker…) with a hand-held electric blender so as to better and more quickly aerate his fine aged wine. This is the face of the apocalypse, I thought; I rent my clothes, rubbed ash in my hair and spent a week wandering around in sackcloth.
My week of melodrama firmly passed, I came to realize that, really, it doesn’t matter. Let people whip up their wines into seething purple froth, let them wave their I-phone at the wine list for recommendations based on a mean result of global scores, I’m going elsewhere. And that is the secret – there is an elsewhere. Mr Elia laments the loss of the purple handed owners; they are not gone, they are just a little harder to find. One such place, a country rich in romance and purple hands stretched to welcome visitors, is Uruguay.
This tiny country wedged between Brazil and Argentina has long been home to the not so humble vine; since the early nineteenth century Spanish and Italian settlers have imported their native as well as French varietals to ease their thirst for fermented grape juices in their new home. However, only as recently as the 1970’s did wine-makers start replanting their vineyards with modern, disease resistant clones that produce a higher quality product. Since then, a small, but growing group of bodegas (wine farms)have invested heavily in finding suitable varietals, and upgrading technology and techniques in order to focus on producing fine wines. (These wines are recognizable by the abbreviation VCP on the label – vinos de calidad preferente, wines of special quality. The vast majority of wine produced and consumed in Uruguay, however, is still cheap, low quality vino de mesa or table wine).
These bodegas number only in the sixties and the vast majority are still family owned and run. Their wines are growing in popularity locally where they compete with cut-price Argentine imports as well as internationally, popping up on exclusive wine lists in the most unexpected places and exported to over 40 countries. This increase in income has made the industry of fine wine more viable (although some bodegas still support themselves to a large extent by the sales of their vino de mesa under other brands) and has caused a growth in expertise and rapid development of the sector as a whole.
Their wines are made, and made well, on the back of a fine terroir which despite the country’s small size varies surprisingly from region to region. From the east coast, Maldonado and areas around Punta del Este, to the south-central Montevideo and Canelones regions, up the west coast along the De La Plata river, to Salto and even further north to the Brazilian border and Rivera, soils range from loose gravelly patches on coastal hills rich to calcareous sandy clay with excellent rocky drainage. Along with low altitudes, cooling ocean breezes that keep a wide day/night temperature gradient and long summers with high humidity, a good year sees perfectly ripened grapes with a fine balance of fruit, acidity and alcohol. It is the most French terroir of South America, many people have labelled it, but with a couple of bonuses.
And here comes the beauty of the country’s wine industry, the winemakers all assiduously follow the old adage of making the wine before it gets to the cellar. Grapes are trellised to manage and maximize the potential of the high humidity, vines are fiercely pruned and grape bunches discarded to reduce production and increase concentration, most grapes destined for fine wines are hand-picked and a few even hand sorted for only the best berries.
Their philosophy of keeping it small but high quality, taking the time and absorbing the expenses of finer production and allowing their wines to show off their terroir is what makes visiting this country and drinking their wines a treat. This is the secret of current and even greater future success internationally; they are making authentic ‘story-telling’ wines that appeal to palates bored of tasting the same wines, and they are doing it on the back of one of the more interesting newly revived varietals around – Tannat.
Tannat, although originally from the Madiran region in France, has adapted perfectly to Uruguayan conditions and has long been adopted as the country’s flagship varietal with the intention of following in the successful footsteps of the Argentine Malbec and the Chilean Camenere. Like their signature varietals opened up the international market, so will Tannat for Uruguay. It is a stunner of a wine, although lacking the elegance of some; it is dark as sin in color and fruit flavors, sometimes chocolaty, but always keeping a green, unbeatable tannic backbone. On its own, it is a challenging and complex wine, particularly suited to rich lamb and barbecued beef (of which, conveniently, Uruguay has some of the best in the world) but in blends it has potential to shine. Merlot is the most common dance partner, but Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Pinot Noir and a gaggle of other lesser known varietals are all lining up to take the belle of the ball for a spin.
But it’s not all Tannat. Standing just behind in the wings are some top quality fresh and elegant white wines. Most notable are the Sauvignon Blancs with a fine balance of tropical fruit and a strong, dry citric acidic backbone and nearby, some examples of Albariño, Spain’s premier white, here showing a brilliantly floral, fruity nose with a slight characteristic almond touch.
Not surprisingly then, wine tourism is growing in step with its parent industry. In 2006 a group of 14 bodegas formed an organization called Los Caminos del vino, (wine roads) with the intention of encouraging visitors to the estates for tours, tastings and cultural events throughout the year. Three of the best are the harvest festival in early March, in August the pruning of the vines and in June, a celebration of the perfect pair – Tannat and Lamb, presented to be consumed in every form imaginable by chefs and sommeliers at each bodega.
To visit these bodegas, enter the website of Los Caminos del Vino where they have decent maps and contact details. Many of the others also receive visitors, and an excellent resource for getting contact details is bodegasdeluruguay.com.uy. All visits should be arranged in advance and if possible, in groups – all the better to encourage them to open a wider variety of wines.
Except for the biggest few bodegas, you are likely to be received by the owner, winemaker or at least a member of the family. You are able to walk the vineyards and the cellar with them, ask all the prying questions you like and then, most often accompanied by a lush snack platter, work your way through their fascinating variety of wines. You will taste, drink, experience, chat and just for a little while the Uruguayan wine family takes you in as one of them. And it feels good.
Greg de Villiers, a South African food photographer and travel writer, lives – for now – in Buenos Aires. To see more of his work, visit: gregdevilliers.com. To find out more about his life philosophy, sit yourself down in the most beautiful place you can imagine, with the best bottle of wine you can find, and drink it all; slowly, lovingly but all of it, down to the very. last. drop.