A four day tour of Uruguayan wine country, small though it is, still barely scratches the surface and leaves one wanting more – be it somewhere new, or more of the same, the wines, people and culture are wonderfully addictive.
First on my tour of the bodegas near Montevideo was Bodega Bouza; although only 10 years old it is one of the country’s best known wineries and possibly the most developed in terms of infrastructure for receiving visitors. Tours and tastings are available (the tours include a visit to the owners private showroom of antique cars) and they have one of Montevideo’s best restaurants – its beautiful setting on the estate only 10 min drive away from the capital has made it an extremely popular option for both locals and tourists. Winemaker Eduardo Boido’s insistence on extremely high levels of thinning (leaving only two to three bunches per vine), low production and small parcel cultivation, along with manual harvesting and sorting reflects in the top quality wines produced. Their Tannat A6 Parcela Única and their Alberiño have in a very short time become icons locally. A recently released blended white, Cocó a blend of Chardonnay and Albariño looks ready to follow suit soon.
Next up was H. Stagnari, arguably the most consistent producers of top quality Tannat. Their red wine vineyards are located in Salto on the banks of the River Dayman, the very place where Basque immigrant Don Harriague first planted Tannat in Uruguay in the mid nineteenth century. Clearly both Mr Harriague and Hector Stagnari, are onto something as the wines currently being made from that land are praised every year by local and international audiences. Look out for the Daymán Tannat, a huge, classic tannat if ever there was one and the Tannat Viejo, a beloved local favourite which has a very distinct personality and intriguing flavours. One to keep an eye on is a wine from their new range Amaneceres de Daymán, a big, juicy blend of Marselán, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. Tours and tastings are offered at their vineyards about 25min away from Montevideo in La Paz, Canelones, and the rolling lawn just outside the tasting room and tucked up against the vineyard is perfect for sipping on some of the country’s finest Tannats.
Day 2 found me standing in the rain in the small town of Las Piedras waiting for Carlos Pizzorno owner of the Pizzorno Family Bodega. He pulls up in a well-used white pickup, the image of Elias’ purple handed farmer. Tastings, booked in advance will be with Carlos, and it is a pleasure to be talked through his wines and his philosophy – one of Uruguay’s great strengths, he agrees, is the unique personality that each bodega gives to their wines. His touch is to favor fruit over oak, giving his reds a young, delicious character that plays very well with the powerful Tannat grape. His entire range is excellent and very well priced, but his Tannat/ Malbec is a great blend and the Pizzorno Tinto Reserva (Tannat, Cabnet Sauvignon and Merlot) is a spectacular show of his philosophy, red fruits balanced by green tannins and eucalyptus. He also makes one of the country’s top white wines, a reserve Sauvignon Blanc, which, with 30% barrel fermented has an added complexity to an already well-structured fruity yet crisp wine.
Later I would head to Corchos, a small wine bistro and boutique in the old city of Montevideo. Here you have a number of wines served by the glass, as well as two different tasting options: A flight of five wines which changes frequently or an all-inclusive, ‘Wine Experience’, where you watch a video in which a number of interesting topics are discussed by some of the top wine-makers in the country and you accompany each of them in tasting some of the country’s best wines. Also invaluable is a simple chat with owner Juan Vázquez who will cheerfully talk you through the local viticultural scene with both pride and an impressive knowledge. Corchos is an essential part of any wine route, where you can taste some wines you missed or go back to visit some favorites.
Day 3: Arriving at Establecimiento Juanicó’s modern yet low key visitor center set in expansive lawns, it is not immediately obvious that this is the largest wine producer in the country. They have an enormous range of wines produced from some 300 hectares, and target all levels of the market – and this is the place to get to know them all (well, a fair amount at least). Although the gardens beg for romping, it is inside the impeccably laid out tasting centre where the good stuff is. They have three different tasting areas to cater for a range of needs; a large salon for events, next door a small leather sofa and fireplace populated room and finally a table setup down in the cellar for the most immersive experience. Like most fine wine producers here, for their top labels they practice minimal intervention, low yield, manual harvest wine making. There are gems throughout their expansive range of wines, but two notable labels were their bold and deeply complex blended red, Preludio and a blended white Botrytis Noble in the Familia Deicas line.
Nearby, on the outskirts of the small town of Progresso, is another Uruguayan icon, Pisano. It is a small and truly family run operation – the three elder Pisano brothers Eduardo, Gustavo and Daniel each run a part of the business and the next generation is already in line with Gabriel, Eduardo’s son, an up and coming young oenologist. They love making wine; it is quickly obvious walking through the vineyard with Gustavo or chatting to Gabriel and just as clear in their innovative range of wines. They have family classics, well-loved locally and internationally – Pisano wine is exported to over 40 countries – but never tire of experimenting with new varietals and new techniques. One such treat was a rare sparkling Torrontes, floral and delicious. The real showstopper was a vertical tasting of the Reserva Personal de la Familia Tannat from ’96, 2000, 2002, 2004, all still huge wines but now the classic reserved Tannat complexity was opening up to show off its best side.
Day 4 began at one of the region’s most beautiful bodegas, Viña Varela Zarranz; an impressive avenue of centennial olive trees leads you into the estate and to a grandiose garden bursting with life and populated by hulking ancient trees. They take full advantage of the beautiful setting and regularly offer tasting and events which can be found on their website. Although they have some excellent reds (and one of my bargain gems – the Cabernet Franc punches surprisingly high in value for money), it is the méthode champenoise sparkling wines that truly distinguish them. The Varela Zeranz Brut Nature was highly acclaimed nationally in the last two vintages and is a wonderfully delicate yet mature and creamy wine.
Last on my brief tour was another classic on the Uruguayan landscape, Bodega Carrau. Wine making is firmly in the family’s blood; they got started in Spain near the end of the eighteenth century and moved their considerable expertise and passion over to Uruguay in the 1930s. They have a bodega near Montevideo and another new and state of the art winery up north near the Brazilian border, where sandy, well-drained soil with low fertility and an altitude of over 300m are creating great conditions for Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Tannat. Those soils produce one of Uruguay’s best known wines internationally, Amat, which, in its best years is a giant of a wine, deeply complex and fruity. Though large, the bodega remains firmly a family affair, with two brothers and a sister running the show. With advance booking you can reserve a tour and a lunch at the estate where Margarita Carrau, passionate and knowledgeable, will guide you she is a perfect hostess to take you through a tasting of their superb wines and a perfectly paired menu of classic Uruguayan flavors. Two other reds that really stood out were YSern, a rich, jammy and well-rounded blend of cabernet sauvignon from their two vineyards north and south and 1972 J Carrau Pujol, a stunning blend of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
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.