The Republica Oriental del Uruguay is a small country located between it's larger neighbors, Argentina to the south and west and Brazil to the north. Uruguay was was once a Spanish colony and it was here in Uruguay that the Spanish first introduced the grapevine to South America. However, it was the Italian and Basque immigrants who followed, that started to establish the first commercial vineyards and wineries about 100 years ago. Uruguay's most famous wine is made from the Tannat grape, the origins of which can be found in the South West of France in the appellations of Cahors and Madiran. Tannat is to Uruguay what Malbec is to Argentina. Wines made from Tannat are powerfully colored, extremely rich, well structured and heavy on tannins - perfect for pairing with grass fed Uruguayan beef. There are 20,000 acres of land under vine planted to 72% red grapes, most of which is Tannat. The other main red grapes are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay is the most planted white grape followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc. There are 270 family owned wineries running boutique, small-time operations as the average estate holding is around 12 acres. Ninety million liters are produced every year, most of which gets consumed by Uruguayans who drink on average 32 liters per year. Only 3% of Uruguayan wines are exported, mostly to the US market.
I had an opportunity to visit with a number of wineries during my short two day visit. Uruguayans are extremely kind, generous and warm hearted people. The winery owners were very excited to have a US audience as they are eager to get the word out about the wines of Uruguay. We all know my love for Argentina but Uruguay has one significant advantage over Argentina and that is the close proximity of their vineyards and wineries to the capital of Montevideo, many of which are located within a half hours drive. To get to Mendoza from Buenos Aires, you would need to drive for 10 hours or take a plane. The combination of the beauty of Uruguay and the wine country is a multi-million dollar tourism based industry just waiting to happen. Meeting with the winemakers and visiting their vineyards made me think of what it must have been like to travel to San Francisco and visit Napa Valley wineries in the 60's and 70's. It's hard to believe now but California was not always known and respected for their wines. They were able to launch themselves onto the international wine scene with the now infamous Paris Tasting in 1976 when wines from Napa Valley beat highly regarded French wines in a blind tasting. They called it the shot that was heard around the world. Uruguay reminds me in many ways of a young California and I sincerely believe they too will have their shot at finding their rightful place amongst the greatest wine producing regions of the world.
Here my tasting notes
Juanico Winery - Juanico is by far the largest winery in Uruguay and is 100% family owned by the Deicas family. They make a variety of wines under different labels but my favorites were the Don Pascual Tannat Roble and Familia Deicas Preludio. The Juanico Estate is a great winery to visit as they have a first class operation that caters to group visits of all sizes.
Carlos Pizzorno Winery - a small boutique operation started in 1910 and now run by the very handsome couple, Carlos Pizzorno and Dra. Ana Laura Rodriguez. Dra. Ana and I bonded as she is a gastroenterologist as is my father-in-law. The Pizzorno wines are very modern in style. I particularly enjoyed the fresh and zippy Don Prospero Sauvignon Blanc, the rich and spicy Pizzorno Tinto Riserva, a blend of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the well structured Pizzorno Tannat Reserve. Carlos' Pinot Noir, although young, shows great promise.
Bouza Winery - This is another boutique run, family owned operation. The Monte Vide Eu was definitely one of my favorite wines that I tasted. The blend of Tannat, Merlot and Tempranillo was very silky, soft and extremely delicious.
Bodegas Carrau - Established in 1782, Bodegas Carrau is one of the oldest wineries in Uruguay. The estate is now run by the extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, Dr. Francisco Carrau who proved to be a great source of information regarding the Uruguayan wine industry. The wine making style is more traditional in nature with less wood and more expression of fruit. I was blown away by the nebbiolo which is released once every 10 years or so. It is the best nebbiolo I have had outside of examples from Italy.
Ariano - this winery is represented by a mother and daughter team. They were eager to receive feedback about their wines and how the US market may view the style. I was happy to inform them their Don Nelson Ariano Special Reserve would certainly have no problem with holding it's own against the big guns from California. This was a very extracted wine, full of rich tannins supported by American oak - very a modern style that would certainly be appreciated by US consumers.
Castillo Viejo Winery - What I remember most about this winery were two things: the Hasparren Espumoso Brut and the very tasty El Preciado Red. I'm always happy to see bubbles and the El Preciado was indeed a precious blend of Cab Franc, Merlot and Tannat. The packaging was really cool too!
Reinaldo De Lucca Winery - This winery was particularly interesting as they experiment with Rhone grapes like Marsanne and Syrah. The Tannat Syrah Reserva was very interesting as I never thought I would be able to taste a blend of these two varietals. I also enjoyed the Rio Colorado, a raisiny and elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Merlot.
Santa Rosa Winery - Santa Rosa has been in business for over 100 years. They produce an impressive line of sparkling wines. General Manager Daniel Mutio is another exuberant spokesperson for the wines of Uruguay and he is looking forward to sharing the wines of his country with the rest of the world. For the still red wines, The Gran Reserva Juan Bautista Passadore and the Museo Tannat were my favorites from them.
Vinos Pisano - Pisano is one of Uruguay's most highly regarded and award winning wineries. It is owned and operated by the extremely amusing, charming and well mustached, Daniel Pisano. He had me in stitches with his stories about his Italian grandfather. Daniel is a great ambassador for Uruguayan wines and his winemaking skills is a clear indicator why. I pretty much enjoyed everything he makes but his Rio de los Pajaros Torrontes and Tannat and Reserve Arretxea were out of control delicious.