Oenophile's delight: No corking Uruguay's rising status as wine country

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Wind-tousled grapevines, marching in cornrow-straight lines and hung with pearl-like clusters of light-green fruit, stretch as far as the eye can see across gently rolling farmland near the village of Juanicó in the Canelones District. Flowering red rosebushes punctuate the ends of each row,...

By Claudia Capos // 11.26.08
 

Wind-tousled grapevines, marching in cornrow-straight lines and hung with pearl-like clusters of light-green fruit, stretch as far as the eye can see across gently rolling farmland near the village of Juanicó in the Canelones District. Flowering red rosebushes punctuate the ends of each row, and tiro-tiro birds, named for their unique call, nest on wooden fence posts. Stalwart pine trees shield the vines from unkind winds along the 34th southern parallel.

The Canelones District is home to the Juanicó wine region, just a 45-minute drive from the Río de la Plata, the broad, slow-moving river that flows between Argentina and its northern neighbor Uruguay.

Surprisingly, the Juanicó region is not part of Argentina, a well-known wine producer and exporter. It belongs to tiny Uruguay and serves as a gateway to the Wine Roads, a stretch of 15 bodegas where wine aficionados can stroll through vineyards, tour century-old cellars and sample fine wines and local cuisine.

"All the wineries in our wine tourism association export their wines, which guarantees excellent quality," explains Wine Roads coordinator Ana Ines Motta. "Visitors can take organized winery tours from Montevideo, rent a car or hire a private car and driver who will take them on a self-directed tour of the vineyards. Many vacationers also like to combine winery visits with golfing and trips to the beach on the eastern seacoast."

We arrived in Montevideo aboard Celebrity Cruises' Infinity during a two-week trip around Cape Horn in January. This was our first port-of-call after leaving Buenos Aires the day before. While fellow passengers scurried off to the beaches or joined city tours, we chose to spend our day learning more about the wine industry in Uruguay.

During the afternoon, we took a winery tour from Montevideo to the Canelones District that included a visit to the historic wine cellars at the Juanic? Winery and a sampling of their award-winning vintages. Having savored the sight of thick sides of beef, pork and lamb sizzling on wood-fire grills at small bistros inside the cavernous Mercado del Puerto that morning, we thought a few glasses of rich, flavorful wine would be a perfect way to round out the day. Juanicó proved to be an enchanting estate that whetted our appetite for exploring the many other family-run wineries in the area.

Spanish settlers actually brought the first grapevines to Uruguay during the colonial period, according to historical accounts. By the mid-1800s, a viable commercial-wine industry was beginning to take hold, with Tannat as the principal variety of grape.

About 270 wine producers cultivate relatively small vineyards -- approximately 25,000 acres combined -- and occupy a viable niche market in South America. The Canelones District accounts for 60% of the national production. Most Uruguayan bodegas are owned and operated as family businesses, some dating back generations to the early Spanish immigrants and the Italians who followed them and set up wine production.

"Each winery has a special appeal, so it depends upon the visitor's particular interest," says Motta, who fields inquiries and provides detailed information about the bodegas. "Los Cerros de San Juan, one of Uruguay's oldest wine producers, has beautiful vineyards and excellent wines. Its proximity to Colonia del Sacramento makes it a must-see stop on any trip.

"Bodega de Lucca is a tiny winery where the owner-winemaker guides each tour personally. If you visit early in the morning, he offers a tasting with wine and fresh-picked fruit."

At Bodega Marichal, a small winery run by third- and fourth-generation family members, "Granny" Teresita serves as the cook and makes visitors feel at home. The winery tour at Casa Filgueira emphasizes environmental sustainability and quality management. The Juanicó Winery, or Establecimiento Juanicó, one of the pioneers in innovation and exportation, caters to large tour groups, as well as small parties of travelers.

In northern Uruguay, Bodegas Carrau-Riviera entices wine lovers to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings for a few days.

Detailed maps, descriptions and directions to the Wine Roads bodegas can be found online at www.uruguaywinetours.com. Once visitors have decided on the wineries they wish to see, Motta can help them plan their route and make reservations 24 hours in advance. Generally, the cost of a tasting, which includes three or four wines, bread and cheese and a tour of the winery, is $15 per person. The price for lunch, usually a typical Uruguayan barbecue of beef steak, pork ribs and spicy sausages with Tannat wine, runs between $40 and $60 a person.

Uruguay's emergence as a wine tourism destination and exporter of fine wines is no accident. Since the late 1980s, vintners in this nation of more than 3 million people -- a population far outnumbered by cows -- have been replacing Muscat and Labrusca grapes used for locally consumed jug wines with the more worldly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Merlot and their best-kept secret, Tannat.

Atlantic breezes keep the Juanicó region's vines well-ventilated despite the moist, subtropical coastal climate, and the combination of well-drained clay soil and 220 days of intense sunshine annually produces growing conditions similar to those of France's Bordeaux region.

On the whole, Uruguayan wines have a lower alcohol content and are often described as "softer and more approachable" than their French cousins. Tannat, named for its high tannin content, was brought over from France by French Basque immigrant Don Pascual Harriague in the 1870s. Blended wines made with Tannat grapes, which comprise 25% of Uruguay's vineyards, are increasingly popular.

Visitor Joe Rothfleisch's curiosity about Uruguayan wines was piqued during a one-day stop in Montevideo. In past years, the Californian had done the Napa Valley shuffle and sampled the nectar of the state's leading vineyards. To learn more about Uruguay's offerings, he signed up for an afternoon tour and tasting at Establecimiento Juanicó.

"I enjoy drinking and comparing wines from different regions," said Rothfleisch, a feed-crop grower and exporter in the Imperial Valley. "Although I'm no connoisseur, I wanted to get an idea of what's available in Uruguay. I've seen Argentine and Chilean wines for sale in the U.S., but never Uruguayan wine products."

At the 180-year-old Establecimiento Juanicó, a rutted dirt track winds back through a portion of the estate's 600 acres to a red-tile-roofed tasting house. Nearby stands the original red-stone cellar erected in 1830 by the winery's founder, Don Francisco Juanicó. With stones carved by Guarani Indians, la cava has been preserved in its original design.

Don Francisco broke with traditional farming methods of his time and began storing his wines underground in the cellar's naturally cool environment. Today, the estate's best wines are still aged in the cellar, using oak barrels.

More than a century and a half elapsed before ownership of the winery passed, in 1979, into the hands of the Juan Carlos Deicas family, which modernized Juanicó's winemaking. After an intensive soil study and consultations with leading grape growers in Australia, Argentina, Chile and the United States, the Deicases began cultivation of the most famous French varieties in an effort to produce fine wines for the world market.

Wilson Torres Chavez, Juanicó Winery's manager of tourism and events, is one of the purveyors of this long history. He was on hand to greet Rothfleisch and his fellow tasters and to acquaint them with the bodega and its past.

"What makes our Uruguayan wines distinctive from others in South America is the fact that our vineyards are located near the sea, whereas the vineyards in Argentina and Chile are situated close to the mountains," he said. "At our annual harvest, which runs from January through March, 400 local workers gather to handpick the grape crop, which is grown without artificial irrigation."

Capos is a freelance writer