Having left Bolivia on a Tuesday morning at dawn, we needed no fewer than three flights, two stops and a full day in transportation to rally Uruguay at nightfall!
Direct flights are not common between these two countries. After the journey from Tarija-La Paz, La Paz-Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires-Montevideo, we were greeted at the airport by Pablo Huarte, a school friend native to Montevideo whom we met a few years earlier during our respective studies in Bordeaux.
Our journey began with Bodega Juanico (1 hour North of Montevideo), the most important estate of Uruguay, with 360 hectares of vines over five regions. It accounts for 1/4 of the wine production of the country. Suffice to say that during harvest time, no fewer than 200 workers are required. Because in Uruguay harvesting is done exclusively by hand!
Owned by the government between 1945 and 1979, the history of Juanico is touching. The concrete cellar of the estate, created in 1945 for the production of Cognac, was a gift from France. Yes, yes, a production of Cognac. In acknowledgment of the meat sent by Juanico during World War II to help our country. A beautiful lesson of humanity and a rare exception in the world since the Cognac appellation is protected. Except for an Uruguayan micro-production…
With 2000 mm of rain per year (more than twice the rainfall in Bordeaux) distributed over the periods July-August-September and January-February, combined with heavy clay and limestone soils, the region is prone to disease and quite a few treatments are required, both preventive and curative. Fortunately, the breezes brought by the ocean help to dry the vines and enable the production of good quality wines.
The history of wine in Uruguay dates back to the Italian and Spanish immigrants in the eighteenth century. Today, 95% of the 9 000 hectares of wine in the country are stamped “Vino de Mesa” and are usually sold in Tetra Packs or in one liter bottles. These wines are chaptalised (1) and consumed exclusively in Uruguay.
Most of the wineries are producing Vino de Mesa, like Juanico (40% of the production) or Varela Zarranz (90% of the production) for example. Because even if these wines are of little interest to the amateur of fine wines, they are inked in the traditions of the country and many consumers love them for their sweetness. It also allows wineries to keep only the best grapes for their production of great wine, and thus increase their quality.
Fancy a ride on a bike or in a golf cart? Welcome to Finca Narbona, in Puerto Carmelo, where you can walk freely visiting the 15 hectares of vines in this beautiful place classified Relais & Château.
Here, the granite stones are ideal for growing red grapes because of their high pH. White varietals are planted in the South, near Punta del Este and the famous beaches of the “St Tropez of South America“, where the fresher oceanic climate, is more suitable. A nice surprise with the cuvée Blend 001, a red blend with varieties kept secret and made from three vintages (2010, 2012 and 2013!). I suspect it to have some Tannat… but the mystery remains.
We ended our journey with Pisano winery, in El Progresso. I must confess, it was our Uruguayan heart stroke. Pisano is a family vineyard run by three talented and lovely brothers and it benefits from clay and limestone soils with very high pH (7.5 to 8), which give mineral and complex wines.
Located in the heart of the great wine region of the country, 95% of the vineyard is organic. The estate is constantly innovating. One of their latest creations : a surprising red sparkling wine, 100% tannat, with a nose of dark berries, fine bubbles, a good freshness and very fine tannins. It matches perfectly with the bloody and juicy pieces of meat from the asado served at lunch!
We were warned: with 52kg of meat consumed per capita per year, Uruguayans are among the biggest meat eaters on the planet. Not surprising considering the quality of the meat here and how much Uruguayans love to prepare their traditional asado.
The cooking process involves exposing the meat to the heat of the coals for slow cooking and tender meat ; regularly basting with pan juices.
This traditional dish, a national pride, is also a social catalyst ; a custom rooted in the country since the beginning of time. “Every Uruguayan house is built with an outdoor stone oven-grill, especially for cooking asado”, one said.
Tasted several times and to our great pleasure – with friends on Montevideo or during lunch when meeting with the winemakers – like here at Pisano, the Uruguayan “asado” is way more than grilling, it is an institution (2).
Thank you to Pisano, Juanico, Varela Zarranz, Narbona and Bodegas Carrau estates for their warm welcome, and to Pablo Huarte for having arranged these meetings.
(1) Chaptalization: adding sugar to the must to increase the final degree of alcohol in the wine after fermentation.
(2) A friendly rivalry endures on the quality of the meat since forever between Argentina and Uruguay.