Wine Exploration: Uruguay

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On our way to Mendoza, Mark and I sidetracked it to Montevideo, Uruguay for two days, wine was the reason!

My curious mind has always sought the obscure and lesser know… things that are not center stage. We’ve been fortunate to travel a bit, exploring foods and wines we would not otherwise have a chance to try. Uruguay definitely spoke to that curiosity.

The country is considered a “newly developing wine nation”. Although they’ve made wine there for 250 years, commercialization just began in the 19th century. And it began with a large amount of bulk rosé wine from the Black Muscat grape.

The signature grape of Uruguay is Tannat, brought in the 19th century by the Basque born immigrant Pascual Harriague. Early on Tannat was referred to as the “Harriague grape”.

Other international grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, along with a few odd balls not mentioned.

Location: Bordered by Argentina to the west, Brazil to the northeast

uruguay wine regions map

We took a ferry from Buenas Aires to Montevideo, an easy 2-hour ride.

Most wine is made in the southern Uruguayan departments of Canelones (just outside the capital Montevideo) and San Jose. Montevideo/Canalones wineries are just beyond the port city, the closest are about 20 minutes away. You’ll find a few wineries in Atlántida and near Punta del Este at the coast, east of Montevideo. And also the northerly areas of Salto and Cerro Chapeau which are inland and north.

 

We were in Montevideo where the climate felt quite similar to Bordeaux in the spring: slightly humid, a storm can roll in with rain at any time, then the clouds part and it’s comfortable. I learned it does indeed have a Bordeaux like climate though a tad warmer.

Climatic Influences:

  • Atlantic Ocean to the east and the huge Rio Plata estuary to the south.
  • Being relatively flat with no mountains acting as weather barriers, all wine producing areas are susceptible to wind and weather.
  • It’s humid, rains a great deal (average annual precipitation is 39 inches (950 mm) and can get warm during summer in parts of the country.
  • Northerly areas of Salto and Cerro Chapeau are much drier and hotter in summer.

Soils and Topography:

  • Alluvial clays, silts, and sand / sandy gravel overlying a limestone bedrock.
  • No mountain ranges; the highest point in Uruguay is just 514 meters (1,650 feet) above sea level

Due to travel challenges, we made it to two wineries (two and a half really). Today we are sharing one of them with you.

Pizzorno Family Estates

Don Prospero Jose Pizzorno emigrated from Italy and founded the winery in 1910. The fourth generation of Pizzorno are now running this small winery.

What was immediately apparent was the friendliness and hospitability of the few people at this small winery. Lucio, head of tourism (and recently out of enology school) was our host.

There are way more grape growers than wineries, and most all wineries are small, family owned like Pizzorno. Because of this and investment costs being very high, a community of sharing is prevalent. Uruguay has to import all winemaking equipment- they don’t manufacture any. Most bottles and machinery are imported from Brazil and Italy. A great deal of equipment is purchased by wineries together then shared.

On our informational vineyard tour we learned that most grape growers took advantage of government incentives urging them to pull up the hybrid North American native Vitis Labrusca and plant other varieties to improve wine quality.

Tannat, and Then Some

Our line up included the following:

Pizzorno Family Estates Uruguay wineWe were wowed by the chardonnay sparkler not expecting any bubbles. The Sauvignon Blanc jumped out too- more similar to a Napa (Cliff Lede comes to mind) Sauv Blanc.

Don Própero Tannat Maceration Carbonica 2017 (13.5% abv, $10)

Such a fun wine with a distinct personality!

  • Eye: clear, ruby, ruby rim
  • Aromas: raspberry, blackberry and violet
  • Palate: attack is tart, subsiding quickly to soft fruit with a blush of mint; nice and friendly acidic structure; soft integrated tannins; Medium- body
  • Conclusion: Served slightly chilled, this is a palate pleaser, fresh and alive smoothing to pure enjoyment. A semi-carbonic macerated wine.

Pizzorno Select Blend Reserva 2013 (abv 13.5%, $22)

A 60% Tannat, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc blend, this was our favorite taste of the day. Each of the three grapes spent 12 months in 2nd and 3rd use French oak barrels, were blended then the final wine spent an additional 6 months in the same oak.

  • Eye: Clean, deep ruby, ruby rim
  • Nose: cherry, blackberry, slight cardamom and red pepper
  • Palate: Medium acid, body and tannins which were soft with a slight tackiness
  • Conclusion: Rustically elegant wine with a full and round initial mouth feel. The wine presented spices (cardamom and nutmeg) and a touch of red pepper before ending with a crushed velvety palate feel.

It was a treat to tack on this short side trip, albeit only for 2 days. We’ve earmarked several additional small wineries for a hopeful future trip. In the meantime, we highly recommend checking out what’s going on in the Uruguayan wine scene!

Uruguayan Wine Facts and Other Information

  • Most all wineries produce a brut sparkling wine for local consumption.
  • Tannat in Uruguay doesn’t usually produce fruit-forward, high alcohol wines, it’s older world (think France or Spain).
  • Majority of exports go to Brazil, with a small amount to the U.K., Sweden, Germany, Belgium and a small amount to the US.
  • Uruguay is a zero tolerance country when it comes to alcohol!
  • Uruguay lies between parallels 30 and 35 degrees south. Cities in other countries that lie in the same zone are Tokyo, Los Angeles, Sydney and Perth, Beirut, Cape Town, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv.
  • For an inventive and flavorful dinner, go to Jacinto in the old section (Ciudad Vieja).

 

If you plan to visit, check out Wine Roads Uruguay (Los Caminos del Vinos). There are several agencies and a few tour groups that offer tours. It’s also easy (and not too expensive) to get a taxi or Uber to Canelones wineries.

Above map courtesy of Wines of Uruguay,

4 thoughts on “Wine Exploration: Uruguay

  1. john

    Great post! Well written. Being that Uruguay is so far from most northern hemisphere populations, this gave good context about the country and its wines. It’d be great to find better (more) quantity of Tannant varietals in N. America. One day…

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      Pizzorno Family Estates is working on getting to the US John, and hopefully more. Many interesting, good wines. Glad you liked the info and thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Reply
  2. Lauren Walsh

    Thanks for this glimpse inside Uruguay’s wine scene. It’s interesting (and heart-warming) that the small growers work so closely together, sharing the cost of supplies and supporting each other. Can’t wait to read more from your South American odyssey!

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      It’s refreshing to see the Canelones/Montevideo wine community working together to help each other and promote the wines of Uruguay. I’m looking forward to going back for sure!

      Reply

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