Uruguay Comes Knocking
by David Lawrason
A small delegation of Uruguayan wine producers visited B.C. and Ontario in September to tell importers and liquor boards that “Uruguay is open for business and willing to partner with Canadians”. The sentiment was echoed by the new Wines of Uruguay executive director, Martin Lopez, when I met him in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, in August.
I daresay Uruguay has a formidable task in opening the Canadian market (and indeed their North American trip was more U.S. focused) because our liquor board channels are narrow and clogged with competition. It would almost be as difficult as Canadian wine establishing a market in Uruguay, although I would bet more Canadians know that Uruguay makes wine than vice versa.
In many ways the comparison is apt. When I visited the tiny South American country of 3.5 million, I immediately saw the parallels between our two countries and the wine industries therein. Specifically, I noticed a comparison between Uruguay and Ontario. Other international voices are drawing comparisons to Bordeaux.
First, the wine industries are of similar size. Uruguay has about 20,000 acres under vine, while Ontario is nudging that with over 17,000. Uruguay has about 200 wineries but only a couple of dozen are large enough to export. Ontario is approaching 200 as well, again with only a couple of dozen large enough to export.
Then there is the Uruguayan landscape – so surprisingly like southern Ontario. We are devoid of the palm trees that nestle Uruguay’s sub-tropical climate (it lies between 32 and 35 degrees of latitude), but everything else is notably Ontario-like. Rolling green landscapes, plentiful cow herds (beef is the main export), forests, and a humidity always present from the nearby Atlantic Ocean and the broad Rio Plata that forms the south coast of Uruguay and separates it from Argentina.
Like Ontario’s Great Lakes, these large bodies of water have a cooling effect in the vineyards, but also make mildew and rot a significant viticultural issue. They also lend a certain structure to the wines – by way of natural acidity – that is also Ontario-like and Bordeaux-like – and quite different from Argentina and Chile. There seemed to be no lack of ripe flavours in the 40-odd wines I tasted, but there was some buoyancy and elegance, even when alcohols ranged toward 14%. Many wines I tried were between 12% and 13%.
Uruguay’s warmer latitude makes red wines dominant – at about 80% of the production. And up to 50% of the entire production is from tannat, the red grape that originated in southwest France, and is still the mainstay of Madiran. Tannat bears a resemblance to the Bordeaux varieties, especially cabernet sauvignon, in that it is a later-ripening grape with thick, tannin-laded skins. Tannat wines pour dark and have considerable heft and astringent clout, but also more mid-palate texture than cabernet sauvignon.
Given the importance of tannat, there is a big effort being directed at taming the tannin and dressing this grape up for the tastes of the modern marketplace. The traditional formula has been to let it ripen as long as possible to create full-bodied, high alcohol, sometimes stewed wines that were then bathed in American and French oak. I had a couple that were almost Amarone-like.
The new focus is on peak ripeness picking, shorter maceration and cooler fermentation to preserve tannat’s lovely mulberry and violet aromatics. Generous oak aging – sometimes overly generous – is still very much part of the formula, although from a large winery called Juanico I had one non-oaked, inexpensive Familia Deicas 2015 Tannat blended from five regions that was just delicious.
On the opposite end of the price scale, Juanico also makes a very elegant and refined 100% tannat called Familia Deicas 2013 Massimo. This blend of eastern and central soil types is very elegant and refined. At $65US in Uruguay, it would be even more expensive in Canada, but… excellent to outstanding length and world-class wine.
Blending with tannat as a base is widespread as well, with merlot and syrah being common partners, but any combination of Bordeaux varieties is possible. I also had one lovely example of tannat and viognier, with 15% of this perfumed white grape adding real charm. There is even tannat rosé, although the two examples I tried were, unfortunately, oak aged. This is the way Uruguayans have historically liked their wines
There is clearly a strong traditional base to the wines of Uruguay. Many of the larger houses have been around for decades. I did not do extensive visiting, but of the five wineries I saw, four had old infrastructure in various degrees of modernization, and I would say the same of the wines themselves.
About half I tasted lacked fruit charm, tilting into oxidative and earth territory. However, many in this genre also had quite fine balance, complexity and depth. In a couple of examples, this led to age-worthiness.
I was most impressed by the modern, elegant 2013 Syrah Reserva, 2013 Tannat Reserva and 2012 Tannat Syrah Gran Reserva from a tiny, family winery called El Legado near Carmelo, a coastal town west and up river from the capital of Montevideo. In the same area the newly refurbished Narbona winery, a Michel Rolland consultancy, is making some impressive reds as well.
Just north of the capital lies Cannelones – the largest wine district. And although I did not visit any wineries other than Juanico (mentioned above) I did try some very good individual efforts: Marichal 2014 Chardonnay, Castillo Viejo 2015 Pinot Noir, H Stagnari 2014 Tannat, Pisano 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bouza 2014 Merlot and Artesana 2012 Tannat. This tasting was courtesy of Wines of Uruguay in Montevideo.
To the east of Montevideo and closer to the Atlantic lies the very impressive Bodega Garzon, part of a modern agricultural estate and hospitality centre. Again, I was not able to visit the region on this trip, but I encountered brilliant whites including Garzon Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, a great Pinot Noir Rosé plus of course a fine Tannat Reserve. Nearby Alto de la Ballena is another new project, and I was able to taste their delicious Tannat/Viognier (mentioned above) in a fine restaurant in Colonia.
I am returning to Uruguay in February as part of a Gold Medal Plates tour, and hope to expand my portfolio of tasting notes. And perhaps too, by then, there may be updates on Uruguayan wines in Canada. For now, I direct you to three reds available this month at VINTAGES, with hopes the selection improves in range and quality.
Pisano 2012 Cisplatino Pequeña Reserva Tannat/Merlot, Canelones, Uruguay ($13.95)
It’s common in Uruguay to blend some softening merlot with tannic tannat, and it works nicely in this instance. This is a firm yet juicy, leanish red mindful of Bordeaux (or Niagara). There is fairly complex currant, leafy and meaty character. It’s well balanced with well-managed tannin, and very good length. Tasted September 2016 (October 15 release)
Bodegas Carrau 2013 Tannat Reserva, Canelones, Uruguay ($15.95)
There is a touch of earthiness in behind the dried blackberry/plum fruit. It is mid-weight, sturdy and quite even on the palate. Acid is a bit high, tannins are tannat-ly firm. Graphite on the finish. The length is very good. (October 29 release)
Robles Del Sur 2013 Tannat, Canelones, Uruguay ($11.95)
This is very basic tannat, not what Uruguay should be exporting if it wants to impress international markets. It can do better. It’s not “bad” but it lacks character. It’s sour edged and certainly tannic (for which tannat is famous). There is vague Bordeaux-like stoniness and herbaceousness. The density and length are good for $12, but there is not much joy here. (October 15 release)