It’s no secret that South America is a hot wine producing area. It’s hard to beat malbecs from Argentina and cabernet sauvignons from Chile for price to quality ratio. But how many people can point to the country of Uruguay on a map, let alone say they’ve tasted a wine from there?
Uruguay is a small country situated below Brazil and just northeast of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Unlike neighboring Argentina, which boasts vineyards at the highest altitude in the world, Uruguay is relatively flat. Though a range of rolling hills sits on its Brazilian border, the inland of Uruguay consists mainly of wild grasslands. The image of the rugged gaucho tending a herd of cows while sipping maté from a hollow gourd no doubt stems from Uruguay’s considerable production of high quality grass-fed beef. And Uruguayans are no slouches when it comes to consuming that beef—Uruguay has the third highest per capita beef consumption in the world. Nearly every household contains an asado (spit roast) in the backyard, and the markets tantalize the taste buds with the smell of roasted meats grilling on the parilla (a large open grill that often holds large steaks, sausages, and sometimes even a whole pig or lamb). For a country that eats so much beef, it’s only natural that they are producers of rich, robust red wines, most namely wines made from the tannat grape.
Wine making has been going on in Uruguay for well over 250 years, but it was the French-Basque immigrant, Don Pascual Harriague who brought tannat vines to Uruguay in the late 1800’s from France. Tannat proved to be a perfect match for the primarily clay-loam soils and temperate maritime climate of Uruguay, and has been Uruguay’s signature wine ever since. Tannat, as its namesake suggests, produces dense, tannic wines. It is most commonly found in southwest France, predominantly in the Madiran region. But while tannats from Madiran can be rather rough in their early years, Uruguayan tannats are softer, more fruit-forward, and are much more easy to approach in their youth than their French counterparts.
Uruguay has 16 official designated wine regions, none of which restrict the type of grape variety allowed to be grown. Tannat is grown in every region. 90% of Uruguayan wines are produced just outside the capitol, Montevideo, in the appellations Montevideo, San José, Florida, and Canelones. In addition to tannat, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are among the most prominent red grape varieties that are grown. These grapes are sometimes blended with tannat, producing complex, full-bodied wines. White wines such as chardonnay, viognier, and sauvignon blanc are also proving to be quite successful in Uruguay. The quality of Uruguayan wines tends to be high, as most come from small, family owned wineries where great care can be taken in the wine making process. Low yields are favored, harvesting is nearly always done by hand, and winemakers are keen on putting their own style into the production of their wines, resulting in unique wines with characteristics that reflect both the terroir of the vineyard and the personality of the individual winemaker.
There’s no question that Uruguayan wines, particularly tannats, are worth seeking out. Yet this may prove to be a challenge to the consumer living outside of South America. While the exportation of Uruguayan wines is increasing, they are still a rare find in most markets. Still, they aren’t impossible to obtain, and most wine retail shops will listen to the demands of their customers. Next time you’re at your local wine store, inquire about wines from Uruguay. I think you’ll find that the virtues of Uruguayan wines go beyond being a good match with beef. They are versatile, complex, and worthy