You’ve probably heard the saying that good things come in small packages. This is the wine story of Uruguay, a small country in size and production, but increasingly a source of lush and elegant wines.
Uruguay, located between Argentina and Brazil in the east of South America, is a country with only 3.5 million inhabitants with a long history of viticulture. In the 18th century. In the 19th century, European immigrants arrived in Uruguay with grapes in tow. A century later, Basque settlers planted Tannat in the mountains of southwestern France, a bright, powerful red grape variety whose roots date back to the 13th century.
For the next century and a half, tannat has stood the test of time. It has been grafted several times with better performing French clones to become a distinctive Uruguayan grape. The good quality gives a dark, full-bodied and lush wine, similar to the Argentine Malbec.
In total, Tannat represents more than 4,000 hectares of vines planted mainly along the fertile and temperate southern coast of the country, where the Rio de la Plata, which separates Uruguay from Argentina, flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to tannin, which is sometimes touted for its health benefits because of its high content of polyphenols such as resveratrol, Uruguay grows red grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and franc, merlot, pinot noir, petit verdot and marcelan.
Of the white grape varieties, Albariño has adapted well to Uruguay’s Atlantic terroir and is produced in an essentially fresh style, similar to the wines of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Petit Manseng complete the country’s white grape varieties.
With barely a dozen of the 180 vineyards exported to the United States, it could be easy for wine lovers in Uruguay to leave the state. But if you try a spicy but balanced Tannat from wineries like Bodega Garson, Artesana, Familia Deycas, Bodega Cerro Chapeu, Pisano or Bodega Buza, chances are you will be pleasantly surprised, even addicted.
That’s what Uruguay’s counting on.
Bodega Buza / Photo courtesy of Bodega Buza
We have the grapes the world wants, says Ricardo Cabrera, president of the National Institute of Viticulture and the Wine Industry (INAVI), Uruguay’s national institute of viticulture and winemaking. We also have a tradition that hasn’t always been the best. Too much color and too heavy wines… is not what most people want today.
But now we have much better knowledge and experience, he says. We have more national and international talent in the wine industry and we understand that the public demands better wines. We’re still a bit like children who start crawling, then walking, and end up being left alone to run. That’s us today.
We’ve got grapes the world wants. We also have a tradition that hasn’t always been the best. – Ricardo Cabrera, President of the National Institute of Vine and Wine (INAVI)
Bodega Cerro Chapeu tank number / Photo courtesy of Bodega Cerro Chapeu
Like its western neighbors, Argentina and Chile, Uruguay can trace its wine DNA back to a great wave of Spanish and Italian immigration that began in the 18th century. The century began and in the 19th century.
The arrival of Tannat at the end of the 19th century by a Basque immigrant named Pascal Harriga is widely regarded as the starting point of Uruguay’s wine trade. Many of these original plantations have now been replaced by proven clones from the Iberian wine regions of Madiran and Irulega. The period from the 1970s to the 1990s represents the golden age of transplantation. Today, only about a third of Uruguay’s tannins are considered old vines of 50 years and older.
For much of the 20th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, Uruguayan wineries had fallen into international oblivion and concentrated on a limited but thirsty domestic market. The country shares many cultural and culinary customs with Argentina, which is why beef is one of the most important dishes in the local cuisine. What goes better with grilled meat than a full-bodied red wine like Tannat?
In the last twenty years, the wines of the country have changed a lot. Consistent export channels and an international reputation for quality are now a priority, and Uruguayan wineries have made efforts to compete with more established and much larger wine producing countries.
This was partly achieved through the deployment of wine consultants around the world and the revision of overproduced wine cellars. New emerging regions such as Garzon and José Ignacio’s emerging Altos sub-region, both located in Maldonado where the Atlantic Ocean has its strongest influence, have also helped Uruguay move forward.
Bodega Garson Vineyards / Photo courtesy of Bodega Garson
Draw a horizontal line from Santiago de Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. This line then crosses the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa and then to Adelaide, Australia. It will finally go through Auckland, New Zealand.
This line, situated at about 34 degrees south latitude, runs through some of the best wine-growing areas in the southern hemisphere. Also on this route are Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and the Canelones wine region, the largest and historically most developed in the country.
The Canelones are known for their humid climate and deep clay soils that produce a full-bodied tannin, as well as a medley of other aromatic wines, including red blends, Chardonnay and Albariño.
The province of Maldonado is located an hour and a half east of Montevideo and is home to the world famous beaches and nightlife of Punta del Este and the nearby vineyards of Garzon and Jose Ignacio.
In Garzon, the Argentine oil billionaire Alejandro Bulgeroni, with the help of the Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini, has over the past 20 years transformed the old meadows and eucalyptus forests into the most famous winery in the country.
One of the first successes of Bodega Garson was the award for Best Winemaker in the New World in 2018. Last year, 25,000 businesses were sold in the United States, by far the largest number of Uruguayan wineries. These achievements have prompted other countries to develop the so-called Altos de José Ignacio.
We love the José Ignacio Valley, even though it is lower than Garçon, says Christian Wiley, CEO of Bodega Garçon, who believes that this part of Uruguay has a special charm. The Albariño is well exposed to the south Atlantic Ocean and the Tannat and Cabernet Franc, ripened red grapes, in the north. In addition, everything takes place on fast-drying soils, avoiding water retention, leading to heavier wines produced in other parts of the country.
Among the remarkable names currently exploring the Maldonado region and planting new vineyards are the Deikas and Buza families, both from Canelones. At the same time, leading Argentine winemakers are also working on projects in Garzon or Altos de José Ignacio, including Gerardo Michelini, whose wines from the Uco Valley are highly sought after, and Hans Winding-Dears, a Dane who introduced the windy Rio Negro region to the Bodega Noemia de Patagonia.
Winery Familia Deicas / Photo : Juanico Founder
In 2019, Uruguay exported only 38,000 cases of wine to the United States, barely a drop in the world’s ocean, which grows every year. With this distribution one could say that the country will never have much space in the basement of the American wine consumer. But if variety is the spice of life, isn’t there always room for something new and good?
We think this is our moment, Mr. Cabrera. We have a new young president [Luis Lacalle] who believes in the wine industry. We have internal stability. We want to produce the quality the consumer wants. We want to be an example to all the other small producers in the world.
Photo courtesy of Artesana winery
Six best Uruguayan wines for sale
Cerro Chapeu 2017 Batovi T1 Single Vineyard Tannat (Uruguay); $35, 93 points. Massive blackcurrant flavors range from blackberries to spicy black cherries. The nose that follows is lush and lush, but balanced instead of just heavy. Chocolate oak blends with ripe berry and spice flavours before ending smooth and roasted with notes of black coffee and inviting acidity. She looks tall and rich. Drinking until 2025. MHW, Ltd.
Artesana 2018 Reserva Tannat (Canelones); $19, 92 points. The aromas of black fruits form a rather dense nose. The rich palate is full of concentrated energy, while the blackberry and blackcurrant flavour is supported by lightly charred and heated oak. Dark chocolate and smoky flavours play on the musky aftertaste with a little cognac. Drink this tannat until 2025. Wine Austral Estates. The editor’s choice.
Bodega Garson 2018 Single Vineyard Tannat (Uruguay); $30, 92 points. This is a ripe version of Tannat with earthy, blackberry flavour. The delicious black fruit flavours benefit from the integrated oak, while the pepper has a good aftertaste. It shows a lot of grip on the palate, so it is best served with meat. Drinking until 2025. Pacific wines and spirits.
Bouza 2018 B6 Parcela Única Las Violetas Tannat (Canelones); $48, 92 points. The almost black colour and the maximum ripe aromas of blackcurrants, raisins and road resin announce the typical, rich, full-bodied Bouza Tannat. Given its color, nose and weight of 16%, it is not surprising that this wine is packed with black flesh and tartaric acid to keep it in balance. Dark blackberries, blackcurrants, espresso and chocolate flavours end with a warm, rich and spicy aftertaste. Drinking until 2024. Elixir Wine Group.
Vigna Progreso 2016 Old Tannat Vines (Progreso); $31, 92 points. A small batch of Tannat from the traditional area of Progreso, near Montevideo, opens up with lively berry aromas and a balanced feeling of freshness. The palate is spicy but balanced by well extracted fruit, while the woody flavours of coffee and chocolate help the blackberry core. An elastic finish with a good flow envelops this attractive red. Drinking until 2023. Copa Fina Imports CA.
Cerro Chapeau 2019 Gran Tradición Petit Manseng-Viognier (Montevideo); $25, 89 points. Aromas of oily oak in this Petit Manseng matured in cask (with 10% Viognier). The swollen palate is ripe and rounded at the first whiff, then softer and flatter in the back. The flavors of apple, salt, tropical fruit and citrus are a blend, although good, but at the same time it is short-lived on the aftertaste. Drink it now. MHW, Ltd.
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