While Chile and Argentina have traditionally been the South American countries that have made their names in wine, they are being joined by an upstart rival – Uruguay. Patrick Schmitt MW travels there to see what it has to offer.
Among the modern success stories in the world of fine wine, it is safe to say that the great reds of South America rate highly. While Chile has made its name in this top-end circuit with ‘icon’ Bordeaux blends such as Almaviva, Argentina has led a global revival for Malbec, with Catena at the forefront of repositioning this variety as a great grape. But there’s another country muscling in on this new Latin-led fine wine scene, boosted by a pioneer that’s just starting to gain global awareness. That nation is Uruguay, and the producer is Bodega Garzón.
While the country has for some time offered much for the adventurous wine drinker, it is only with the advent of Garzón that Uruguay has been thrust into the fine wine limelight. This bodega has the backing of Argentina’s richest man, oil and gas billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, who is intent of putting his winery, and its location, on the global map. Having invested an estimated US$200 million (£157m) in the property, no expense has been spared in creating something that demands attention.
Not only that, but the bodega’s top wine, Balasto, is disseminated worldwide by the singular distribution system of Bordeaux, known as La Place. This makes it one of just four from South America that are handled by the French négociants, the others being Chile’s Almaviva and Seña, along with Argentina’s Catena.
Launched in 2017 with the 2015 vintage, Garzón’s ultimate expression was named Balasto after the weathered granite soils in its vineyards, and employs Uruguay’s flagship grape, Tannat, along with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdet and Marselan.
But it’s not just this top-end blend that impresses. Indeed, Garzón is crafting notably good Pinot Noir and, in whites, Albariño – both benefitting from the cooling influence of the nearby Atlantic. This is because Bodega Garzón is located 18km inland from fashionable coastal village José Ignacio, which itself is near the much larger resort town of Punta del Este.
Standing alone on a hilly terrain that is not unlike the undulating landscape of Tuscany, Bodega Garzón spans 210 hectares of high-density vines on free-draining gravel-like decomposed granite soils – the oldest granite on the planet. Planted with no expense spared by expert viticulturalist Eduardo Felix in 2008, with support from famous Italian wine consultant Alberto Antonini – who still works with the estate – the vineyards at Garzón are in peak condition, and are managed with great care.
Then there’s the winery, which, with its Italian oak botti and specially designed truncated concrete fermentation tanks, is one of the most advanced and impressive set-ups in the world, and in 2018 was declared New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.
While Garzón is getting an international wine-loving audience talking about Uruguay, in the country itself, this bodega appears to be having an influence. One impact has been on vineyard locations in the nation, with more producers establishing ocean-influenced operations. While the majority of wineries are based in the historical heart of winemaking in Uruguay, Canelones – which is found just 30 miles outside of the nation’s capital, Montevideo – this region faces the Río de la Plata, the widest river in the world. However, Garzón was a pioneer further north in the Atlantic-facing Maldonado region, attracting others to set up in the area, and beyond that too, in the neighbouring Rocha. Martín Lopez, export director from Uruguay’s National Institute of Vitiviniculture, talks about the past and present situation of the country’s viticultural spread. “Seventy per cent of our production comes from Canelones; it is our Mendoza,” he says, adding that 90% of the output comes from the south side of Uruguay in a “350km corridor of vineyards running west to east, and up to Punta del Este and beyond”.
While he describes Canelones and regions on the west side of the country, such as Colonia, as “traditional but evolving”, he says the east, primarily Maldonado, “is the up-and-coming terroir of Uruguay.”
He recalls: “This area used to be important over 50 years ago, then it disappeared, and in the past 20 years it has had a comeback, and now it is the next big thing in our industry.”
Nevertheless, the area of Maldonado where Garzón invested almost 20 years ago, had never previously been used for viticulture. And other entrants have since come in. “After Garzón we’ve had new investment from Brazil, and more from Argentina, and elsewhere, with a Japanese multi-millionaire planting 35ha just 2km from the ocean in Maldonado.”
Such a move towards the coast is also driving other changes in the Uruguayan wine industry. Stylistically, people speak of a development towards softer wines, but also a greater confidence in trying to harness the natural expression from this country’s soils and climate. “In the past there was this view that Tannat had to be produced with a lot of oak influence, but now we have lots of different profiles, and some are using no oak at all, so the wines are modern and fruity, and we are trying to understand our terroir. We used to copy what producers were doing in Mendoza or France, but now we are producing wine the Uruguayan way.”
Certainly for José Manuel Bouza of Bodega Bouza, who is president of Wines of Uruguay, a defining element of Uruguayan wine is the manner in which the products are crafted. “We make wines in an honest and authentic way,” he says. Also, thanks to the low-lying nature of the landscape, and strong Altantic influence, including the high rainfall it brings, he says that the Uruguayan wine character is different from the New World stereotype of concentrated, alcoholic reds. “Our wine style is more Old World than New, and it is different from what you expect of South American wine,” he says.
One element that is notable in many reds from Uruguay are the tannins – a result of the prevalence of the country’s emblematic grape, Tannat, which is a variety with unusually high levels of polyphenols. Although modern winemaking with its gentler extraction regimes is producing a Tannat-based wine from Uruguay with a softer mouthfeel, this is still a country making reds with plenty of grip. And if you like marbled red meat, that’s no bad thing. “We say that Tannat and beef is the perfect pairing, even better than Malbec,” says Lopez. “So, whenever we talk about Tannat, we talk about our beef, and we are one of the largest consumers of beef per capita in the world.” Also, the typical preparation for all meat in Uruguay is the grilling over hot embers, called ‘asado’, using cuts of beef with a high fat content, requiring a naturally tannic red as a palate-cleansing accompaniment.
Nevertheless, Bouza is keen to stress one thing: “We have great quality meat and we have made a big improvement to our Tannat. We take a more sensitive approach, so the wines are more
balanced and approachable.”
He’s also keen to point out that Uruguay is home to more than simply Tannat. “Of course, our main, iconic grape is Tannat, and it is very well adapted to our climate, but Uruguay is not only Tannat. We have really nice Merlot, and I believe there is a big potential for Merlot from Uruguay.” But the other growth area grape-wise can be seen among the whites, and with a variety one wouldn’t normally associate with South America. Rather than Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay – both of which are widely planted – the new darling of Uruguay is Albariño. “Albariño was introduced to Uruguay in 2010 and it’s doing great, and more people are planting it – increasingly it is becoming the iconic white grape of Uruguay. In keeping with this belief, Bodega Garzón is to make a flagship white from Albariño fermented in a cigar-shaped oak barrel, potentially from this year’s vintage.
Albariño was first planted at Garzón on the advice of consultant Alberto Antonini, because the estate’s vineyards are located on granitic soils near the Atlantic, two aspects shared with northwest Spain and Portugal – the native home for this white grape.
Although Bouza adds that the area of Uruguay’s vineyards planted with Albariño is still relatively small, with 5% of white wine plantings, he says: “It is starting to make some noise, people are talking about it more and more.”
Meanwhile, both Bouza and Lopez are at pains to point out that a big-bucks project such as Garzón is atypical in the country, even though it is having a transformational effect on the image of Uruguayan wine.
Lopez says: “Garzón doesn’t follow the traditional model of wine producing here in Uruguay, where 95% of wineries are family owned and run by the fourth or fifth generation.
“But Garzón is so important for the country because now we have a lighthouse, a spearhead winery that is pushing the Uruguay wine name around the world for the first time.”
He says: “All the time people refer to us as the best-kept secret of South America, but with Garzón we are no longer a secret – the truth is now out there – and more people are looking to Uruguay as wine-producing country.”
He adds one further important point: “And Garzón is spreading the word that Uruguay is a producer of fine wine.”
Uruguay: the facts
> Population: 3.4m
> Cattle: 11m (almost four cows per inhabitant).
> Area under vine: 6,500ha
> Per capita consumption of wine: 24.5 litres
> Annual production: 70m litres > Number of wineries: 180
> Exports: 58% within South America, 19% to North America, 18% to Europe, and 5% elsewhere
> Tannat is the country’s flagship grape, accounting for almost 50% of the vineyard area planted with red varieties in Uruguay, followed by Merlot, with 19%.
> With well over double the level of polyphenols and resveratrol than even the thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Tannat is said by the Uruguayan wine industry to produce the “healthiest red wine in the world”, while the grape is said to be the best partner for steak.
> Tannat, which is originally from the southwest of France, was introduced to Uruguay in 1870 by Basque-Frenchman Pascual Harriague.
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