Each week in October, we will visit an unexpected wine destination, in honor of one of the wines in our Corners Collection.
Cerro Chapeu Tannat Reserva, Uruguay, 2019
This week, we’ll be visiting the tiny country of Uruguay. . .
Today we embark on a set of weekly journeys to unexpected places; countries (and states) in which we may be surprised to find wine grapes growing. To borrow a phrase from the great poet Robert Frost, we’ll be exploring “the road less traveled.” Our first destination on this journey will be the tiny country of Uruguay.
You may find it surprising that quality wines are coming out of Uruguay — I certainly did.
A little peek into the recent history of South American economics might help explain Uruguay’s sudden appearance on the scene. In the mid-1980s, Argentina and Brazil formed a bilateral commission to establish, among other things, a common market for South American countries. To ensure that they had a place at the table, Paraguay and Uruguay joined with the two powerhouse countries (Argentina and Brazil) to form the Southern Common Market (commonly known as Mercosur,a portmanteau for Mercado Común del Sur) in 1991, entering the free trade market.
Location – The “Sweet Spot” for Wine
Tucked neatly in between the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires (at its southwestern corner) and the southern end of Brazil (on its northeastern border), Uruguay conveniently falls within the temperate zone; a zone (one for each hemisphere) that lies between 40° and 60° from the equator. These happen to be great latitudes for wine growing (the “sweet spot” being between 30° and 50° latitude).
Canelones, Uruguay – 60% Wine Production
With over 60% of the country’s wine production, Canelones (just outside of Montevideo) is by far the most significant region. The concentration of vineyards in the areas is due in large part to its close proximity to the city, with about 40% of the population living in Montevideo (remember, until very recently, wine production in Uruguay was intended almost exclusively for local consumption).
A number of wine grapes are grown here, including sauvignon blanc, albariño (which is seldom grown outside of Spain and Portugal), chardonnay, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and pinot noir, but the most successful grape in Canelones (and perhaps in all of Uruguay) is the seldom seen grape called tannat. Tannat has become so successful, in fact, that Uruguay is widely regarded as its home.
The truth is that tannat, like all of these other grapes, came to Uruguay by way of European immigrants. Tannat’s place of origin is southwestern France, specifically the region south of Bordeaux known as Madiran, in the Basque country that straddles the French/Spanish border.
30% Uruguay Coastal Areas
* Maldonado – the country’s new rising star for Wine Production
While Canelones is responsible for more than half of the country’s wine production, another (approximately) 30% of production comes from the surrounding coastal areas, with Maldonado (the newest coastal region) being the country’s rising star. The soil in Maldonado is considerably poorer than that in Canelones, consisting of rock (mostly granite) and sand, and providing excellent drainage. The region also benefits from greater cooling maritime (ocean) influence, being at the convergence of the Rio de la Plata (which happens to be the world’s widest river, assuming, of course, that it is actually a river) and the Atlantic Ocean. To further boost the prospects of Maldonado, the region is considerably higher than most of the rest of the coast. The increased elevation helps to reduce both humidity and temperature, making for not only healthier grapes, but also more acidic grapes (which in turn produce fresher tasting, more aromatic wines).
Most of the other regions in Uruguay still focus on local or semi-local consumption, but many are on the receiving end of investments that may help them to increase both quality and availability. While Uruguayan wine is limited in availability in most parts of the United States, it is certainly not impossible (or even terribly difficult) to find.
With the quickly increasing quality brought about by steadily increasing investments in the country’s wine industry, Uruguayan wines are certainly worth seeking and (more importantly) trying.
As always, I encourage you to be adventurous with your wine choices. You cannot imagine how many new favorites are just waiting for you to discover them!