Nestled between Argentina and Brazil and surrounded on two sides by the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean, Uruguay’s miles of gorgeous beaches, colonial cities, vast stretches of rolling countryside and diverse winegrowing regions make it one of the hidden gems of South America. Uruguay is an extraordinary country that should be on everyone’s short list of travel destinations.
Uruguay attracts a wide variety of travelers. A favorite among South Americans, Uruguayan cities and beach towns are best known for their casual atmosphere and laid-back style. This is part of Uruguay’s charm. It remains under the radar for most North Americans but this secret won’t stay that way for long.
Uruguay offers a unique Latin American-European culture—with strong Italian and Spanish influences. It has a mild climate and the lowest level of corruption and poverty in South America. People are friendly and open. Because of progressive social programs and stable democracy, it is known as ‘the Switzerland of the Americas’ and is considered one of the best ex-pat places to live. It is a small country, about the size of Washington State, with a population of just 3.5 million people. 1.4 million live in Montevideo, Uruguay’s seaside capital city and major port.
Uruguay means ‘River of Painted Birds’ referring to its many rivers including the Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world and to its 475 species of birds. It is considered one of the most environmentally sustainable countries in the world ranking third on the Environmental Sustainability Index after Norway and Finland in 2005. It has the purest water on the continent and its 12 million cattle are grass-fed. Cows outnumber people almost four to one. Uruguay’s high quality beef is its main export and can be found on many a Michelin star restaurant menu.
The nation’s most valuable natural resource and the foundation of its economy is its land. Eighty-five percent is dedicated to ranching, farming and tourism. Viticulture represents fourteen percent of agricultural production. Differing from Argentina and Chile, Uruguay is a country of small-scale, family-owned wineries with a European winemaking tradition. There are some 250 wineries producing approximately 10 million cases annually. By comparison, Chile’s Concho y Toro winery produces more wine than all of Uruguay. Many Uruguayan bodegas are owned and operated as family businesses, some dating back generations. Low yields are favored, harvesting is done by hand and wines reflect both the terroir and the style and personality of the individual winemaker.
Uruguay lies in a temperate zone and is the only Latin American country completely outside the tropics. It sits between the 30th and 35th parallels in line with some of the best winegrowing regions of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Its temperate coastal Atlantic climate produces growing conditions often compared to Bordeaux’s. Located 30 miles north of Montevideo, the Canelones region is home to the majority of the country’s vineyards and is considered the premier winegrowing region in Uruguay. The clay-rich calcareous soils combined with the warm growing season produce wines with well-balanced levels of alcohol and acidity. Other winegrowing regions include Colonia, Maldonado, Salto and Rivera all with a diversity of terroirs and winemaking styles.
Historically, wine production arrived in Uruguay via the Spanish in the early 1600s however, Uruguay’s wine industry began in the 1870s when Tannat, originating from the Madiran region of France, was introduced by Basque immigrants. Adapting perfectly to the climate and soil, Tannat has become Uruguay’s signature varietal, producing rich, full-bodied red wines with dark fruit and spice aromas and flavors. Tannat wines have great structure and aging ability and those made in France generally have to be cellared before they are ready. However, because of the warmer climate and winemaking techniques such as cold soaking and cool maceration regimes, Tannat wines made in Uruguay are softer and more approachable than their French counterparts. Having a flagship varietal is an asset and winemakers are using this grape as their passport to distinction.
Tannat provides complexity and backbone and is often blended. It is food friendly and traditionally paired with beef and lamb in Uruguay as well as pastas and strong cheeses. Named for its high tannin content, Tannat has been found to be the healthiest of red wines due to its high antioxidant and resveratrol levels which can aid in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
There are a variety of other wines produced in Uruguay including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, Viognier and many others. Wines styles range, lying somewhere between the old and new world. Uruguayan wine culture is attuned to the sensorial experience of engaging with the unique terroir of each region and the unique winemaking style of each producer.
Uruguay’s boutique wine industry offers an abundance of eno-tourism options. Its picturesque wine regions are all within short distances and can be easily explored and navigated.
The Wine Roads
Los Caminos del Vino or The Wine Roads is a wine trail including 15 wineries who have opened their doors to the public offering guided tours, tastings and events to delight the senses and share the rich diversity of winemaking in Uruguay. Each of the wineries invites you to engage with the winemakers, taste the diverse terroir of the many winegrowing regions throughout the country and become acquainted with the outstanding and award-winning wines produced in Uruguay.
The Wine Roads host several annual events that take place throughout the year celebrating Uruguay’s cultural heritage. These events are a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a variety of festivities offered by each winery. Although guided or self-directed tours can be organized, most wineries require an appointment. www.loscaminosdelvino.com.uy
Wineries to Visit
Artesana Winery (Canelones)
My family’s winery, Artesana, is the first American-owned winery in Uruguay. It was my uncle’s vision that brought us to Uruguay. He recognized the unique potential of Uruguay’s Tannat wines and thought other Americans would be interested in discovering them as well. In 2007, 20 acres of our 80-acre estate were planted to Tannat, Merlot and Zinfandel, the only Zinfandel in Uruguay. Later Cabernet Franc was added. The vineyard is entirely hand-farmed using sustainable, low-input, dry farming practices. Our award-winning Uruguayan winemakers, Analia Lazaneo and Valentina Gatti, handcraft small lot, terroir-driven Tannat and Tannat blends using minimal intervention.
Artesana wines are sold in select shops and restaurants in the US (Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, Arizona), Canada and Europe. Visit the winery and enjoy a tour and tasting lead by the winemakers and lunch on the terrace overlooking the vineyard. Try the Tannat-Zinfandel-Merlot Reserve. https://artesanawinery.com
Bodega Bouza (Montevideo)
Tour the grounds and enjoy a gourmet lunch at the elegant onsite restaurant paired with a full range of Bouza wines. Try the Albariño and Tempranillo-Tannat blend. http://www.bodegabouza.com
Alto de la Ballena (Punta del Este Area)
Enjoy sweeping views of the countryside atop this spectacular hilltop setting. The single varietal reserve line includes Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Try the Tannat-Viogner blend. http://altodelaballena.com
Garzón (Maldonado, 30 minutes inland from Punta del Este)
Owned by Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, this mega-project will no doubt put Uruguay on the map. The 9,880-acre property includes vineyards and olive trees as well as a new multi-million dollar 123,000 sq. ft. LEED certified winery slated to open in 2015. Alberto Antonini is the consulting winemaker. http://blendsinc.com/bodega-garzo
Finding Your Way Around the Wineries:
Los Camino del Vino website: (The Wine Roads) Guided or self-directed tours can be organized. www.loscaminosdelvino.com.uy
The Wine Experience: Ryan Hamilton of The Wine Experience offers private & personalized wine tours in Punta del Este, Montevideo & Colonia. www.thewine-experience.com
Bodegas del Uruguay website: A good resource for current events and information on some 60 wineries around the country. http://www.bodegasdeluruguay.com.uy/eng/
Guía de Bodegas y Vinos de Uruguay (Guide to the Wineries & Wines of Uruguay, hard copy only) is an invaluable resource for planning your tour. It is available in most bookstores in Uruguay and features maps and detailed information on 33 wineries.
Other recommended wineries: Carrau, Juanicó, Marichal, Narbona, Pisano, Pizzorno
Money: Peso (currently 24 pesos to the US$, good value)
When to go: Summer (December–March) is peak season in Uruguay and prices and tourist traffic are significantly higher. The off-season months of early spring or late fall are the best times to visit as the crowds have dissipated, the weather is warm and prices are generally lower.
Montevideo (Capital City):
Visit the Ciudad Vieja with its stately 19th-century neo-classical and baroque-style buildings. Take the rambla, the coastal promenade that runs the length of the city.
At night choose among a variety of restaurants, theater productions, live music and tango lessons.
Dine at the Mercado del Puerto (mercadodelpuerto.com) which houses several traditional Uruguayan ‘parrilla’ (BBQ) restaurants.
My Suites Boutique Hotel & Wine Bar http://www.mysuites.com.uy
Restaurants ($$$$ – most expensive):
La Perdiz http://www.restaurantlaperdiz.com/fotos/montevideo $$$
Tandory: http://www.tandory.com.uy $$$
Corchos: https://www.facebook.com/corchos.uy $$
La Cocina de Pedro: http://lacocinadepedro.com.uy $$
La Fonda del Puertito: https://www.facebook.com/lafonda.mvd $
Punta del Este Area (Beaches):
Punta del Este is Uruguay’s equivalent of Rio de Janeiro—a high-end beach resort with miles of sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast and the country’s hottest nightclubs, casinos, shows and restaurants. Off the beaten track, visit the nearby beach town of Jose Ignacio, Uruguay’s newest hot spot. See New York Times article.
Budget Hotels: Atlantico Hotel http://hotelatlanticopuntadeleste.com/en/hotel
La Huella: http://paradorlahuella.com. Located in Jose Ignacio about 20 minutes from Punta del Este, this rustic beachside open-air restaurant is great for seafood and people watching. Open year-round. $$$
Garzon: http://www.restaurantegarzon.com/e-001.html $$$
Lo de Tere http://www.lodetere.com $$$
O’Farrell: http://www.ofarrellrestaurant.com $$$$
La Pasiva: http://www.pasivadepuntadeleste.com $$
Casapueblo Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró’s Gaudí–esque ‘living sculpture’ is now a museum, hotel and café. Built on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic it’s the place to enjoy spectacular sunsets. http://www.clubhotelcasapueblo.com. See Telegraph UK article.
Purchasing Wines in the US:
Uruguayan wines are receiving international recognition and starting to make their way onto the map in the US. Try a Tannat from Uruguay if you see one or ask your local wine merchant about bringing in these unique wines.