“U” is for Uruguay

When you think of South American wine, the two nations that come to mind are Argentina and Chile, and rightly so as these two are the well established ‘big players’ on the international wine scene.  However, Uruguay is coming up hot on their heels, not in terms of volume perhaps, but certainly in terms of quality potential.

Before I go into the wines and producers to look for, I wanted to give a quick overview of the history and geography which explains what makes Uruguay quite distinct from its South American counterparts in terms of grapes grown and wine produced.

History and Geography

As with Chile and Argentina, Uruguay owes its viticultural origins to the Europeans, but in the case of Uruguay, they came late to the party  – with the modern wine industry only really taking shape from the 1870s with the arrival of Italian and Basque emigres. 

Small, family-run holdings make up the lion’s share of production here, meaning volumes are generally quite small and the high quality (VCP) wine which must be made from Vitis Vinifera grapes currently only makes up around 15% of the total production.  Interestingly Uruguay has a very high per capita consumption of wine with locals hoovering up a lot of the more basic (VC) wines.  Brazil and the US have historically been the biggest international consumers which is why to date Uruguayan wines remain relatively unknown in the UK. 

Geography plays a key role – lying at the same latitude as Chile and Argentina, what makes Uruguay so different is the maritime climate which is humid and wet.  The proximity to two large bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata) helping to moderate the temperatures, meaning Uruguay avoids the heat that can plague both Chile and Argentina.  So yes, it is very wet but not too hot, almost Bordeaux-like actually.  So perhaps it is no surprise that the French varieties have been so successful here, but more on that later.

A leader in sustainable winemaking? For those of you interested, Uruguay has a very developed ‘green’/sustainable programme. Minimal intervention, organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking with limited or no sulphur use are common in the country.  In addition, ecological bottles and packaging and the use of turbines and solar panels for water and electric generation are growing in usage. 

Key Regions

Grapes are grown all across the country, the one thing each area has in common is proximity to water – the soils are varied as are the altitudes (although Uruguay is generally quite flat when compared to Chile and Argentina). The most planted region is Canelones (in the south east of the country close to the capital Montevideo, near the confluence of the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean).  Of growing importance is Maldonado, which lies to the east of Canelones and slightly closer to the coast.

Key grapes

Tannat is front and centre the key variety here.  This thick-skinned, robust grape with high acidity and tannins may hail from the Madiran in the South West of France, but it’s fair to say it has found its spiritual homeland here in Uruguay.   Interestingly, it’s the original pre-phylloxera clones that made their way to Uruguay all those years ago, with France now using newer clones  – you could say then that Uruguay therefore has a claim on producing the original wines!

The thick skin and natural resistance to rot makes Tannat perfectly suited to the damp/humid climate of Uruguay. The result is full bodied, deeply coloured wines with firm, grippy tannins, and an aroma/taste profile running the gamut of red to blue and black berry fruits, hints of chocolate and spice alongside a distinct savoury note.  The wines are usually oaked to help integrate and soften Tannat’s notorious tannins.

Uruguay is by no means a one-trick pony though, and although Tannat does offer the country its USP, there are a number of other varieties increasingly performing well here. Think cool climate grapes: Albariño (the similar climate to Galicia ensuring this Spanish variety feels at home), Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet FrancMarselan (a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache) is also showing promise.

Did you know? Uruguay is the only country in the world to have Tannat as its signature variety.  This may also explain why so few people know too much about either.

Producers to look for

Along with increasing investment in wineries in the country, has come greater recognition, so it is now possible to find Uruguayan wines on the High Street if you look hard enough.  What I would say though, is whereas Chile and Argentina (with their large volumes of production), are able to offer wines at entry level prices, Uruguay with small production and an emphasis on sustainability does invariably mean prices will be higher. But don’t let that put you off giving them a go. 

I am a big fan of Bodega Garzón, their single vineyard Albariño and Tannat are well worth a try and won’t break the bank.  This sustainable producer may be a relative newcomer to the scene but the quality of their wine really does stand out. Bodega Bouza is another of the bigger names worth looking for.

Uruguay wines may yet to make a real impact on the global wine scene, but from acorns come oak trees…. Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration but the quality of the wines I’ve tasted suggests Uruguayan wines have much to offer and are very much here to stay.

Next up “V” is for vegan and vegetarian wines.

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