Uruguay? Yes!

This afternoon I had the pleasure of joining a zoom call to learn about winemaking in the South American country of Uruguay. Beyond what started as a mild curiosity, there are a few reasons why I accepted the invitation to participate.
Bodegas Garzon

For starters, it shares a border with Argentina, whose winemaking prowess and history is well-established. And regular readers will recall what a fan I am of finding value in the neighborhood of notoriety. Second, as a lesser-known country/region, it is working hard to emerge from the shadows, making it fertile ground for discovery and, importantly, value. Finally, in many years of sampling and reviewing wines, I think I have only once had the opportunity to taste Uruguayan wine, so this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

This post will be followed by others containing reviews for specific bottlings that accompanied this session. For now, however, I'll share the lay of the land offered by the presenters, which grapes dominate winemaking here, and what, if anything, constitutes textbook expressions thereof.

Martini Litta's professional title is something long and formal-sounding. But in a nutshell, she is Uruguay's wine ambassador. She, along with Joaquin Hidalgo, Vinous Media's man in South America, offered a terrific overview of this burgeoning region. 

With a population of just 3.5 million people (most of whom share European heritage from Italy and France) and a landmass similar to the state of Wisconsin, this is a very small, but modern country. There are around 180 family run (mostly) wineries, 2/3 of which are located in the Metropolitan region close to the capital of Montevideo, which is across the bay from Buenos Aires. Uruguay also has an insanely high literacy rate (98.7%) and pervasive use of tech (all public school students are issued laptops.)

Another interesting fact: like it's neighboring countries, Uruguay loves their steak. Cows outnumber humans four to one, fueling a per capita meat consumption greater than any other country in the world.

From an economic perspective, Uruguay appears to be a stable example in the region, certainly as compared to Argentina, whose currency continues its long slide against the dollar. And, according to the World Bank, tourism is largely to thank for its post-pandemic GDP growth rate of 4.8%. The party scene there is allegedly legendary, and the capital city offers beaches, historical architecture, a foodie scene, and more. For the heck of it, I looked at booking a suite in mid-January at Montevideo's #1 rated hotel on Trip Advisor, which would set you back less than $300 a night.

As for wine, tannat, a red grape, is the undisputed king here, accounting for nearly half of the country's acreage under planting. Merlot and cabernet are distant second and third places, while sauvignon blanc is the most widely planted white grape, but with less than 10% of vines versus tannat. 

So, what is tannat? There's little agreement on that front. Some call it a softer, lighter wine, while others suggest its potency and tannic brawn can be tough to tame. With such varied terroirs and styles, it can show up in many different incarnations. In this, Uruguay shares a challenge with Chile in that there is no simple, unifying description of its signature grape to offer an export market. Us Americans like simple, after all. But that also means there will be more to love for those with the willingness to explore and experiment.

Stay tuned for more details on specific wines. In the meantime, happy drinking.