Historically, South American wine aficionados focused their attention on Argentina and Chile—both in terms of vineyard tourism and retail. However, the introduction of a unique grape, tannat, is steering the wine spotlight towards Uruguay, an otherwise modest player in the world of wine.
Sophie Le Baux, a European immigrant, made the move to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, a decade ago with the goal of establishing Baco, a South American wine shop. Upon tasting the local tannat wine, however, she was taken aback. “It was incredibly tough to drink. I wondered how I could possibly run a wine establishment here.”
Her sentiments were shared by many, including Santiago Deicas of the renowned Familia Deicas winery, who claimed that “the locals didn’t believe in quality”. Given the high consumption of wine among Uruguayans, there was little impetus to produce upscale wines for export.
Fast forward to the present, tannat is now an award-winning wine, and Uruguayan winemakers are consistently ranking among the best globally. The Mapa del Vino, a newly established tourist route, encapsulates approximately 95% of Uruguay’s boutique wineries. Considering the country’s small size, it facilitates an immersive, week-long road trip through history, scenic landscapes, and, naturally, vineyards.
Uruguay’s rise in the Wine World through Tannat
Uruguay, just like its famed grape, tannat, had always been relatively low-key in the tourism sector. Overshadowed by its massive neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay, about the size of England, struggled to attract a significant number of tourists. Tannat, initially a blending grape native to southwest France, was relatively unknown and underappreciated in Europe and the US. Uruguay was the first to successfully use tannat to produce a single varietal wine.
Tannat emerged as Uruguay’s national grape due to its adaptability to the country’s fluctuating, typically humid coastal climate. “It stays healthy even in rainy years and pairs perfectly with asado (barbecue),” explains Deicas.
Although the tannat grape had a rocky start due to its high tannin levels which resulted in a strongly astringent and bitter wine, it found a home in Uruguay. “There’s a reason most countries don’t have tannat as a single varietal,” comments Mariela Zubizarreta of Bodega Zubizarreta in Carmelo, where the grape has been cultivated for four generations. But in Uruguay, tannat stood its ground.
Thanks to the younger generation of winemakers who have innovatively refined it from a harsh to a mellow wine, tannat has seen a resurgence. It now presents a robust, fruity red wine that has put Uruguay on the wine world map, says Soledad Bassini, co-creator of the Mapa del Vino and owner of Solera, a wine bar in the beach town of Jose Ignacio. “We needed an official wine route as more tourists kept inquiring about winery visits,” she explains.
Traversing the Historical Wine Route
Starting from Carmelo in Colonia, traversing lively Montevideo, and ending at the dreamy Atlantic beaches, the wine trail is an enthralling journey through centuries-old towns, vineyard tours, wine tastings, and vineyard stays. The vineyards are predominantly located in Colonia, Canelones, and Maldonado provinces.
Carmelo, home to eight family-owned vineyards open for tastings, is the perfect place to start. From exploring the region’s rich wine history to tasting wine at Bodega Zubizarreta and admiring the Art Deco center, Carmelo has a lot to offer. The next stop could be the Familia Deicas in Canelones, one of the first wineries to master tannat.
Maldonado, the glamorous coastal region, marks a fitting end to the Mapa del Vino journey. From tasting wines on a mountainous granite bluff at Alto de la Ballena to e-biking amidst the 617 acres of vines at Bodega Garzon, the area offers diverse wine experiences.
The rise of tannat, according to map creator Bassini, is a testament to Uruguay’s unique position in the wine world. “While we may not be able to produce large volumes of wine or compete with Argentina or Chile in terms of pricing, tannat has carved a niche for us—it’s unconventional, yet filled with character.”
Much like Uruguay itself.
Julia Buckley is an Italy-based writer. Follow her on Twitter.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Uruguay Wine Tourism
What is the unique grape that is putting Uruguay on the global wine map?
The grape is called tannat, which was initially a blending grape native to southwest France. Uruguay is the first place to successfully turn it into a single varietal wine.
Why was the tannat grape initially hard to drink?
The tannat grape was initially hard to drink due to its high tannin levels which resulted in a strongly astringent and bitter wine. However, innovations by younger winemakers have refined the grape into a mellow, robust, and fruity red wine.
What is the Mapa del Vino?
The Mapa del Vino is a newly established tourist route that covers approximately 95% of Uruguay’s boutique wineries. It allows tourists to plan a weeklong road trip through history, scenic landscapes, and vineyards.
What role did tannat play in Uruguay’s wine industry?
Tannat played a crucial role in putting Uruguay on the wine world map. Despite the grape’s rocky start, Uruguay stood by it and successfully turned it into a single varietal wine. It is now an award-winning wine that has put Uruguay on the global wine stage.
Which regions in Uruguay are best known for their vineyards?
The provinces of Colonia, Canelones, and Maldonado in Uruguay are renowned for their vineyards. Each of these regions offers unique wine experiences for tourists.