Uruguay and its wines may be one of the best kept secrets around.
It’s like a hidden treasure tucked between Argentina and Brazil. This little gem is home to amazing wineries, stunning white sand beaches, and a rich history. Considered Latin America’s crown jewel, Uruguay boasts the highest gross national income per capita in South America. And get this: they were the first country in the Americas to grant women the right to vote and the first country in the world to legalize marijuana!
I had a chance to visit Uruguay through the glass at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival sponsored by South America. If you’re curious about Uruguay’s wine regions, its fascinating history, or even the best time to visit, you’re in luck! This post has all the juicy details as well as other great things to do while you’re there. So stick around to the end where I share the triumph of flavours of Uruguay’s wines in my tasting notes.
Table of Contents
Recent History of Uruguay's Wines
Once upon a time in the 1980s, Uruguay joined forces with Chile, Argentina, and other countries in a trade agreement (Mercusor). Thus, they found themselves in a fierce wine competition. With Argentina and Chile having the upper hand in lower costs and an early start to export markets, Uruguay had to step up its game.
So, what did they do? Out went the lower quality vines and those American and hybrid varieties, focusing instead on vitis vinifera. They also became the champions of purity and naturalness in wine production. Think sustainable, high quality, and all-around awesome.
By the time 2004 rolled around, Uruguay ranked as the third most environmentally sustainable country, just behind Finland and Norway at the World Economic Forum.
They transformed their wine industry into a sustainable powerhouse, giving Mother Nature a big, fat hug along the way. Cheers to Uruguay, the eco-warriors of wine!
But it doesn’t stop there. In the Southern Exposure seminar at the Vancouver International Wine Festival,
Master Sommelier, Evan Goldstein shared some particularly cool information. INAVI – that’s the Viticultural Research Institute in Uruguay – invented a new way to conduct geo-referencing of vineyards for 1/10th the cost. They then gave that to the world!
We can all raise our next glass to INAVI and Uruguay!
Grapes, Climate Change and other Grapes
The Tannat Grape
Tannat + Climate Change
Other Grapes to Look Out for in Uruguay
Uruguay's Wine Law
INAVI (Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura) are the bosses of wine law, quality control and fostering export markets for the wines of Uruguay. Along that thread, they’ve created 2 classifications for the wines of Uruguay.
At the top of the hierarchy, are the wines made with the noble vitis vinifera grapes and are labelled VCP or Vinos de Calidad Preferente (Preferred Quality Wines). These wines must be sold in 750 ml glass bottles or smaller. Furthermore, the wines are only granted the label after analysis by INAVI.
On the other hand, wines that are made with American or hybrid species, or those sold in large formats or tetrapaks, or don’t pass the analysis by INAVI are sold as VC or Vino Común.
And while I can’t cover ever wine region in Uruguay, we have time to cover a few, well three, to be exact. Let’s take a closer look at Montevideo, Canelones and Maldonado.
Montevideo and Canelones: Uruguay's Wine Regions
Montevideo [mont-eh-vee-day-ō] and Canelones [can-ay-lone-ez] are Uruguay’s 2 major wine regions as they surrounds the capital, Montevideo city.
Back in the day, wines travelled by donkey or by horse and buggy. In that regard, vineyards needed to be close to ports and to people.
Not only do over half the population of the entire country live in Montevideo, it’s also where the oldest vines are!
Yet, Canelones wine region is further north, sitting just on top of the Montevideo region.
In fact as soon as you leave the city, the countryside begins and meadows and wooded areas cover rolling hills. Viticulture is the main crop, but not the only one. Cereals, vegetables and fruits are also grown to feed the people of Uruguay!
Climate and Soils; Montevideo + Canelones
Both Montevideo and Canelones have a similar climate, soils and topography.
The soil is rich and fertile with a large proportion of clay; clay being an excellent soil for producing rich, full wines.
But, the real challenge for growers here is to keep yields down to maintain high quality in those rich soils. Most of this is achieved through a ruthless green harvest where producers may discard up to half the harvest during véraison. That’s when the colours of the grapes ripen and change from green to black or yellow.
Map of Uruguay's Wine Regions
Maldonado: Uruguay's Wine Regions
Travelling up the coast past the famous seaside town of Punte del Este, you’ll find the wine region of Maldonado.
Maldonado has a few things going for it. As opposed to Montevideo and Canelones, Maldonado was intentionally selected for growing grapes and not for it’s location to the wine market in Montevideo. To this point, the area rests at a higher elevation. That means warm days and cool nights allow grapes to keep their refreshing zing.
Maldonado is also famous for its granite soils.
If you like places when they are quiet, head to Uruguay during grape harvest season from March to May! But if you are a sun worshipper, you’d better get there for warmer temps in December to February. Skip winter season from June to August as most hotels and bars close. Here’s a brief breakdown by season…
Spring: September - November
It’s springtime in Uruguay! The hotels and bars open up and towns along the coast, like Jose Ignacio are great for exploration and bird enthusiasts.
Summer: December - February
This is summer! The weather is warm and surprisingly, it’s not humid. However, this is also summertime for Brazilians and Argentinians so book early. It’s also when the month long holiday of Carnival happens!
Fall: March - May
Fall is a great time to head to the beaches if you’re wanting to miss the summer crowds and stroll down quiet streets. Yet the weather is still fair with highs of 22C (71F).
And… it’s harvest time! Check out the local wine festivals and events at the wineries!
** more about Uruguay after this shameless self promotion…
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Travellers to Uruguay will arrive at the Carrasco International Airport (MVD) landing in Canelones!
Until things open up a little more, there are unfortunately few options to get to Uruguay right now. Yet, changes are happening fast. So, check your travel agent for updates.
Usually from Canada, we’d go through Toronto (YKA) then off to Montevideo. Currently those flights have been suspended soo… United Airlines offers regular flights from Miami (MIA), Florida during October to March.
There are no direct flights from the UK. But that won’t stop us! Fly through Miami first. Or, catch a flight to Madrid, Spain which will connect you easily to Montevideo.
Busses and taxis are readily available from the airport and the wineries are only 19 km from Montevideo center. I suggest you read this post to know all the local nuances – just little things such as the buses won’t stop unless you flag them down in Uruguay!
Want to rent a car? Just make sure your ID says you are at least 21 years of age! Roads outside of Montevideo may not be that great so look into the area you are planning to drive to before you rent a car.
Speaking the Language...
When venturing to Uruguay, it’s handy to have a guide book for some basic Spanish phrases. While it’s true that all Uruguayans study English in school, only about 10% of the population can truly flaunt their fluency. So, pack your guide book, amigo, and get ready to immerse yourself in the vibrant language of Uruguay! Olé!
Other things to do in Montevideo...
A must-visit destination in Uruguay is Montevideo, the country’s capital city.
Montevideo is a vibrant city with a rich history and culture. Visitors can explore the colonial architecture of Old Town (Ciudad Vieja), which is home to many historic buildings including the famous Palacio Salvo. Stop to view Uruguayan avant-garde sculptor, painter and writer Torres García at Museo Torres García. Later on, you may eat at one of many of the cities fantastic restaurants such as those in Mercado del Puerto (Port Market).
Or, head to the Primuseum also located in Old Town for dinner and a Tango dance show. Tango is a couples dance – it’s basically super high-paced cardio moves pulled off with the elegance of a ballet dancer. There’s even a Tango Museum of Montevideo!
Yet, from my perspective, the best places to visit are obviously the wineries. Most of them are situated a short drive from the capital…
If you decide to stay in Montevideo before you get to the wineries, Iberpark is THE place to buy your wine!
Other things to do in Uruguay: Visit white sand beaches...
But if you needed more reasons to visit Uruguay, it’s also home to some of the most beautiful beaches in South America.
Driving or bussing 1.5 hours along the coastline, you can visit quiet, Piriápolis and the surrounding white, sandy beaches.
Or, if you prefer action, head another 40 km to Punta del Este, the seaside city that hosts the longest Carnival in all of South America! The town boasts pristine beaches, a lively nightlife, and world-class restaurants giving it the moniker, ‘the Monaco of the south’.
Further up the coast, the fisherman’s village of José Ignacio is a haven for bird watchers as it’s situated on a massive lake (laguna). It’s a 3 hour ride by bus from Montevideo, or a 2.4 hour drive by car.
But if you make it this far, you won’t resist driving a leg further to Bodega Garzón!
The Indegenous People, the Charrúa...
While it’s true that a significant portion of the Uruguayan population has indigenous roots (around 38%), the unfortunate reality is that the majority of the Charrúa, the largest indigenous group, faced a devastating fate in the 1831 Massacre of Salsipuedes. So sadly, there isn’t really anything left to celebrate in terms of culture from the original peoples.
Football - Soccer
But, let’s shift our focus to something truly remarkable – to the national football team, Selección de Fútbol de Uruguay (that’s soccer for the rest of us). They embody the indomitable Uruguayan spirit known as ‘Garra Charrúa,’ or the ‘fight of the underdog’. As a tiny country with a population of just 2.3 million, they’ve achieved extraordinary success and won 4 FIFA World Cup Titles! Compare Uruguay’s record to FIFA wins of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia here.
Uruguay’s football team stands as a shining example of the country’s spirit, resilience, and determination. It’s a testament to the remarkable things that can be achieved when passion, talent, and the fighting spirit unite. We’re certain their wine industry operates under Garra Charrúa as well!
Uruguayans tend to eat their dinner late, say 8 pm. Or on weekends starting at 9 or 10. So they usually have a merienda, like a second breakfast between 4-6 pm.
The foods of Uruguay
Check out these fun facts: two foods from Uruguay that have revolutionized the world are the Oxo cube, one of my favourite camping companions and corned beef. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that corned beef was a staple as a kid. My brother and I would make sandwiches with corned beef in the summer when both mom and dad were at work.
But, I digress.
When you are in Uruguay, you’ll have to try the local asado, grilled meat and a traditional favourite of the Uruguayans. Uruguayans prefer asado grilled over wood fire. You can search for parilla restaurants to fill your cravings. Of course, a bottle of Tannat is also the order of the day!
For vegetarians, parillas do it all so potatoes topped with cheese or butter are roasted on the grill, as are eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers stuffed with cheese, egg, or both.
Arroz con leche is a rice dessert made with milk, eggs and with dulce de leche caramel poured in to sweeten it and topped with cinnamon sprinkles.
In fact, Uruguayans are known for their dulche de leche and may also have churros, long thin fried donuts served with dulce de leche for dipping. #yummyinmytummy
Winery Profiles and Tasting Notes of Wines
These wines from Uruguay are worth seeking out at your local wine shop. Yet, generally all wines from Uruguay are known for their quality and for sustainable production methods. So, even if the wine you find isn’t one of the producers below – go for it!
Let’s take a tour of the wine regions we mentioned earlier. In the vibrant city of Montevideo, we have the esteemed Bodegas Carrau, where wine magic happens. Just a short distance away in Canelones, get ready to uncork a 10-year-old bottle of Tannat from the captivating Artesana Winery. And last but not least, we have the star of the show, the largest exporter of wines from Uruguay, Bodega Garzón, nestled in the picturesque region of Maldonado.
Let’s get sipping!
Bodegas Carrau in Montevideo
The Carrau family’s winemaking tradition began in Spain in the 18th century. Years later. they immigrated to Uruguay and took over the Pablo Varzi winery, one of the oldest wineries in Uruguay. They’ve been conquering the Uruguayan wine scene ever since!
Marcos Carrau, Production Manager at Bodegas Carrau, was supposed to be in attendance at the Vancouver International Wine Festival event. He used to live in Montreal, Canada and is now living full time at the estate in Uruguay. But unfortunately… not realizing he had to cancel (or renew) his permanent residency status, he got stopped in LA on his way over! Fortunately for us, he was able to send through the wines!!
Where to Find Bodegas Carrau's Wines
Bodega Carrau 'Juan Carrau' Grande Reserva Petit Manseng, Canelones, Uruguay 2020
This wine I had a chance to ponder as I also tasted it in the Southern Exposure trade seminar.
The wine has a gorgeous colour of lemon with gold flecks. Already developed, pronounced aromas of beeswax, lemon curd, orange zest, and orange marmalade burst forth. While it lacks the characteristic botrytis funk, it exudes a candied ginger spiciness with notes of almond and yeast, resulting from 10 months of batonnage.
On the palate, the wine is juicy and carries an earthy minerality akin to plasticine. Despite its full body, it maintains a refreshing, juicy character. Even at 14.5% alcohol, it has so much fruit concentration, it is balanced. A long length, leaves a lasting impression on the palate.
Bodega Carrau Grande Reserva Cabernet-Tannat, Maldonado, Uruguay 2020
The wine is a blend of 50% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Cabernet
Franc and is planted at their vineyard in Los Violetas, Canelones. It shows an earthy dust complexity from the get go and red berry-licious cherries and red plums. Floral notes and a light spice add a touch of intrigue.
Tannat is famous for having high, mouth-drying tannins and this wine shows medium fine and ripe tannins. Long finish continues to reward.
Austin Schwadel, former sommelier and portfolio manager for Cobees, shared the Carrau’s trick for softening the tannin in their Tannat-based wines. Keep the fermentation at low temperatures for a slow ferment.
Artesana Winery is in Las Brujas, Canelones, 30 minutes from Montevideo city. It’s the only winery in Uruguay owned by a Californian. Not surprisingly, they grow Zinfandel and blend it with Tannat.
Owners Blake Heinemann and Leslie Fellows started the winery in 2007. ‘Artesana’ is a feminine deriavative meaning ‘handcrafted.’ The name is a tribute to its winemaker, Analía Lazaneo. Annalía has an intimate knowledge of the macro terroir of the Canelones region and the intricacies of the Tannat grape through her many years of working in the region. She first worked at another Uruguayan superstar winery, Bouza.
Artesana’s wines are artisan, indeed: they are sustainably made in small batches. In fact, each wine may have just 250-350 cases of each. And oh, they are amazing! Artesana knows how to play it cool with restrained oak usage, creating wines that are nothing short of remarkable. Just take a look at the bottle I popped open solely for this post. It’s a testament to the fact that they produce wines meant to be cherished.
I was first introduced to Artesana through Leslie Fellows, Heineman’s niece, at a Wine Blogger’s Conference. Fellows lives in Santa Cruz and I’ve been lucky enough to speak with her a few times over the years.
She said that it’s funny because when it comes to running wineries in the area, it’s the women who rule the roost in Uruguay! Picture this: when there’s a festival or wine event, all the women hop on a bus to conquer the scene, leaving not a single man in sight.
Here’s an insider’s secret: the Artesana Tannat-Merlot used to grace the glasses at Hawksworth Restaurant, one of the top 50 restaurants in all of Canada.
Where to buy Artesana's Wines...
Artesana Winery Tannat, Canelones, Uruguay 2013 14% abv
At a decade of age, this wine exudes an extraordinary level of complexity!
Its pronounced aromas enchant the senses with notes of luscious blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, and black plum. While the fruit displays a slight inclination towards dried characteristics, it maintains a predominantly fresh quality, beautifully complemented by hints of mint, earth, and liquorice. The delicate touch of oak imparts an array of spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. As the wine gracefully shows itself, it reveals nuances of resin, smoke, walnut, and caramel.
This wine leaves a lasting impression with its remarkable depth and impressive length.
Bodega Garzón in Maldonado
They brought in Alberto Antonini, the world-renowned wine consultant and owner of Poggiotondo in Tuscany. Antonini was also the first international to discover that Argentine Malbec translates terroir and then he promoted it to the world.
Next, they added Pedro Parra, known as Chilean godfather of subsoils and armed with a PhD in terroir from the Grignon Paris Center of Agriculture. Who would’ve thought you could actually graduate with a PhD in terroir?? Thanks to Pedro’s insistence, they selected a site in Maldonado with stunning granite subsoil, adding an extra layer of uniqueness to their wines.
The winery is gorgeous too! Picture this – beautiful granite rocks peeking through the lower levels, creating an ambiance that’s as visually appealing as it is enticing to wine lovers.
But how I know Bodega Garzon is through the unstoppable Marie Mele Sosa, enologist and marketing extraordinaire. Living in Seattle, Mele [pron. may-lay] is a constant and vibrant presence in the Vancouver wine scene. Thanks to her hard work and dedication, Bodega Garzón’s wines have found their way into many markets, ensuring that wine enthusiasts like us can enjoy their treasures.
Oh, and did I mention that their winery restaurant was voted as the #1 Winery Restaurant? Imagine sitting on their patio, savouring delicious food while taking in the breathtaking views of the vineyards. They even produce their own olive oil, which they serve right there at the winery.
Bodega Garzón Reserva Albariño, Maldonado, Uruguay 2022 12% abv $23
Albarino is a grape that Uruguay does really well and this wine is no exception. Pronounced flavours jump out of the glass with peaches, nectarines, white flowers and orange blossoms. The alcohol is balanced and warm, giving you a cozy hug. It has juicy moderate acidity and a great length.
3-6 months lees ageing in stainless steel on granitic soils
Bodega Garzón Estate 'Cabernet de Corte', Maldonado, Uruguay 2021 $23
The `Cabernet de Corte` is a blend of 80% Cabernet Franc, 10% Tannat, 5% Marselan and 5% Merlot.
This wine brings a playful twist! It unveils moderate aromas of red cherries and cranberries with ripe red plums. There’s a mischievous hint of hung meat complexity with sweet spices and tobacco. The fine moderate tannin join the fun, adding a touch of elegance. The best part? A long length that ensures the enjoyment lasts and lasts.
Bodega Garzón 'Single Vineyard' Tannat Reserva, Maldonado, Uruguay 2020
We’ve got a wild one here! They used a wild ferment on this wine achieving fantastic results. It’s the best of both worlds boasting a harmonious blend of luscious red and black fruits. Juicy red plums, cherries and black raspberries. The aromas are so pretty! Purple flower potpourrie lift up the wine, adding an extra touch of elegance.
As you indulge, you’ll notice the presence of moderate fine tannins that bring a youthful and slightly drying sensation. Fear not, for the pleasure is long-lasting, as this wine lingers on the palate, enticing you for more.
With some time in the cellar (or with a good decanting) this wine will go up in points.
90 Points and will improve
Bodega Garzón 'Single Vineyard' Petit Verdot, Maldonado, Uruguay 2020 $42
Discover Uruguay’s wine regions where exceptional producers like Bodegas Carrau, Bodega Garzón, and Artesana Winery are making waves with their high-quality, sustainable wines. As the crown jewel of Latin America, Uruguay not only boasts sun-drenched white sand beaches and passionate Tango dancing but also tantalizes visitors with the aromatic flavours of asada on wood-fired grills. While you’re there, don’t miss the opportunity to experience the splendour of Uruguay’s wines! With their innovative techniques like georeferencing vineyards, meticulous green harvesting, and extended fermentation at super low temperatures, these winemakers are truly mastering Uruguay’s unique terroir. So, embark on a journey of wine exploration and let the flavors of Uruguay captivate your senses!
Have you popped a cork on a bottle from Uruguay lately?
Share your tasting notes in the comments below!
‘Southern Exposure’ trade seminar at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on April 27, 2023 moderated by Evan Goldstein MS. Panelists included Rafael Boscaini, Marina Castillo, Salome Hopkins, Martin Kaiser, Aurelio Montes Jr., Francisco Roig.
‘The Wines of Argentina, Chile and Latin America’ by Christopher Fielden. Published by Mitchell Beazley, an imprint of Octopus Publishing Company, 2003. Chapter on Uruguay.
‘The South American Wine Guide: Uruguay’ website and guides published by by Amanda Barnes, retrieved May, 2023.
‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ Fourth Edition edited by Jancis Robinson. Oxford University Press 2015. Entry on Uruguay.
* See also links within the text above’