Uruguayan Vineyards Part 1

February 3, 2024

Paul Kay


Have you been to Uruguay? Maybe Montevideo should be a wine vacation destination? This is Part 1 of a two part post on Uruguayan vineyards. Part 2 can be found here. Uruguay is a hidden gem in the world of wine, and while it may not be as famous as some of its South American neighbors like Argentina and Chile, it has a growing wine industry with some intriguing lesser-known aspects: Tannat is Uruguay’s flagship grape variety and is often referred to as the “national grape.” This red wine grape produces wines known for their bold and robust character. Uruguay’s Tannat wines are distinct from those made in other regions, featuring softer tannins and a more approachable style than their French counterparts.

This post is all about Uruguayan wine. Uruguay, the country, is geographically located between 30th and 35th latitude – south of the equator. The country’s boundaries are the Atlantic Ocean, the River Plate and the Uruguay River. Our travels of taken us to Chile and Argentina which were much more well-known for wine production in South America. 

Uruguay is the fourth largest producer in South America after Argentina, Chile and Brazil. However, it is quite a distant fourth place. Argentina, for example, produced 14.5 Million Hectoliters of wine in 2018. That’s 1.45 billion liters of wine. Uruguay produced 74,500 liters of wine in 2018 which is 0.0016% of the Argentine wine production.

If you look at the graphic below you’ll see that Uruguay isn’t even on the list of the top 15 wine producing countries worldwide.

Worldwide Wine Production by Country through 2019 estimated

The first grape vines came to the Banda Oriental (Eastern Province) from the Spanish who planted the grapevines together with olives and walnuts. The name Banda Oriental as given to all Spanish territory east of the Uruguay river. 

The first grapevines were probably table grapes of Spanish origin. Muscat grapes were prevalent and cultivated as a climbing vine for family consumption. Grape production into wine was primarily for the elite. It was the Spanish and Portuguese who made the investment of grapes to supplement their own diet of wine. 

It took until 1875 when the now Uruguayan state brought people from Europe to help them with the cultivation of wine and the grapes. The people that were primarily cattle or sheep workers were being squeezed out of jobs at this time. A combination of technology and simple fencing reduced the labor force. Helping people growing, cultivating and fermenting grapes was still a farming activity and many people transformed into the business as laborers.

The first pioneer of Uruguayan winemaking started in 1874 in the north of the country under Pascual Harriague. In 1876 Francisco Vidiella started in the south of the country. They both brought varietals from Europe. The first harvest from the Vidiella vineyard was in 1883. The two grape varietals that were used were named Harriague and Vidiella for the men who planted the vineyards. These two varietals are now known as Tannat and Folle Noir.

Tannat and Folle Noir were the foundations of winemaking in Uruguay. It put Uruguay on the map because these varietals were unique. Other varietals soon followed including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec. Because Uruguay is a relatively small country compared and does not produce the huge volumes of wine as compared to Argentina, Brazil or Chile – it means much of the wine is consumed by the natives.

Per Capita Wine Consumption Worldwide

For such a small country, it is in the top 20 consumers as measured by per capita. Not surprisingly, Portugal, France and Italy are in the top. They make a lot of wine, and they consume a lot of wine.

Paul sees Irurtia Tannat giant wine bottle from car in Carmelo Uruguay

The primary grape of Uruguay is Tannat, and it is a source of national pride. Uruguayan wine making includes quite a lot of small family vineyards or bodegas. 

They may not be top in quantity, but their goal is to produce the highest quality wines. The Tannat is to Uruguay as the Malbec grape is to Mendoza and Argentina. It put the country on the map of well-known wine makers.

I covered some of the bodegas near Montevideo in my earlier post that focused on the Bouza winery in Montevideo. I included a few other bodegas that were within a short ride from the city. In this post, I want to cover some bodegas that are a little further afield and are known for being family vineyards.

Campotinto

Caminos de los Peregrinos s/n, 70100 Carmelo, Departamento de Colonia, Uruguay

Campotinto vineyard Carmelo Uruguay

The Vigano family came from Tuscany, Italy. Part of the family migrated to Carmelo, Uruguay. They wanted to make wine but also to have a small family inn with rooms, a restaurant and fine wine.

Campotinto has been a noted place to eat, stay and enjoy wine since 2013 when the new owners purchased the place. Before that, it was a family-owned business for over 100 years.

They have separate buildings for tasting, production, restaurant etc. We got dropped off with a taxi ride from Carmelo Resort for about $10 USD. The tasting options were expansive but for about $15USD we tried 7 different varietals including their reserves. This is a very small vineyard, and they sell locally and a bit beyond Colonia del Sacramento.

We tried 7 different varietals for a fixed price of about $15. Madeline and I just sipped a taste from a small glass so this was not 7 large glasses of wine apiece. We tried to find a wine that we both liked, and we chose the blended red of Tannat and Merlot. 

We walked after the tasting to our lunch, which was only about 300 feet away in a different building.

We had made lunch reservations, but we were a bit late. Nobody seemed terribly worried about our late arrival. The server greeted us and knew we came from Carmelo Resort. 

two bottles of wine for tasting at table for two in living area of original house at Bodega Campotinto on Caminos de los Peregrinos near Carmelo Uruguay

The menus were not in English, and her English wasn’t great either, but we figured things out. Madeline enjoyed a meal of gnocchi with Alfredo sauce, and I had a tenderloin steak. We split an appetizer of bruschetta. The meal was delicious, and we enjoyed the blended wine of Tannat and Merlot.

We walked back toward the bodega where we had a tasting and Madeline took some more pictures of the church she was fascinated with.

We then decided to explore the Bodega Cordano because they told us of the history so why not try to see what it was like before catching a taxi home?

Almacen de la Capilla – Bodega Cordano

Carmelo, Departamento de Coloni

Paul sitting under colorful bunches of grapes hanging from outdoor vine canopy at Bodega Cordano Carmelo Uruguay

This is one of life’s unusual coincidences. We had a reservation for a wine tasting and lunch at Campotino. As we arrived, our taxi driver pointed to a bodega across the street and said in halting English “This since 1885.” It looked like an old stone building and there was a very small sign that said wine and tasting.

As we arrived in Campotino – I asked the wine expert about the place across the street. She said – oh yes -you need to visit. It’s so old but great. There was absolutely no competition amongst these places. Everyone is family and the more the better.

So, we had our tasting at Campotino and then walked the vineyards to our restaurant for lunch. It was probably 1000 feet of slow walking and looking at the vines. You can see our review of Campotinto in this post. After our lunch, with wine, we walked along the road back to where the wine tasting for Campotinto began. 

Madeline wanted to take pictures of the famous church that is part of this community. It’s across the street from Campotinto and the church is an icon in the area.

We walked back to the bodega for wine tasting and then walked across the street to Bodega Cordano.

A nice woman met us and after she determined that we were not speaking Spanish, she found someone. It appeared that she might be the resident grandmother and she called her son. Grandma was minding the cash register and getting guests started but the son spoke a little English.

He was very gracious and took us on a very nice tour of the vineyard. They only sell locally and largely jug wine for the locals. It is excellent quality for everyone, but jug wine is less expensive to distribute, and the locals return the jug for a discount on the next jug.

The bottles of wine were mainly for the tourists. He has no reason to sell to people in Montevideo or elsewhere. His distribution is totally local.

He showed us the Chardonnay grapes first and then the grapes he uses for local wine. The white and red were intermingled. The vineyard is five generations old now and he said it started in 1885. He and his wife are running it now with his Mom at the cash register. He had two sons who were on vacation and happily playing in the backyard.

display ready for tasting with gorgeous arbor of grapevines overhead at Almacen de la Capilla Grocery store of the Chapel at Caminos de los Peregrinos near Carmelo Uruguay

He gave us a very nice tour of the vineyards, the production, the fermentation tanks, barrels, etc.

He sat down with us and was genuinely interested in why anyone from the USA would come here. After all, Carmelo is not a huge wine export location. He asked where we were staying and for how long. He was surprised that anyone would come here on any kind of visit for more than 3 days.

We had a very nice conversation with him over almost 2 hours. He broke every once in a while to tend to the winemaking business. We petted the family dog, talked to his Mom and met his wife. The two boys eventually needed to go to their football (soccer) practice so off Dad went.

This is a very nice local vineyard. Our tasting for two of 5 varietals was less about $15 USD. They are not in the tasting for the money. They hope we will come back and spread the word that local family vineyards are back and producing quality wine.

This is one you should check out.

We needed a taxi here and back, but the round trip was about $20 USD from our Carmelo Resort Hyatt Unbound property.

We think you’ll love this hidden gem of a vineyard.

Narbona

21, 70100 Carmelo, Departamento de Colonia, Uruguay

Fermentation tank Narbona Vineyard Carmelo Uruguay

This is one of the earlier vineyards in Uruguay. The original farm dates from 1909 when Juan de Narbona established his vineyard. This vineyard is close to where we are staying in Carmelo Resort and Spa in Carmelo which is about a 3 hour drive from Montevideo. This vineyard has rooms for visitors to stay. We didn’t need a room, but the rooms offer very nice views of the vineyard and winery. The Narbona Lodge also has a very nice restaurant.

We arranged the tour through the Hyatt Unbound Carmelo Resort and the transportation to and from was complimentary. This was not terribly surprising because the Hyatt and Narbona vineyard have the same owner group in common. However, it was also very nice and painless to have reliable transportation both ways.

We were met by Victoria who gave us a great tour of the vineyard, the fermentation tanks, the history, the caves, etc.

After our tour, we enjoyed a very nice dinner with a nice bottle of a Narbona blended wine with Tannat and Cabernet Franc. 

Madeline had a cheesy pasta dish which she pronounced delicious and hard to finish. I had a Uruguayan steak with roasted vegetables that was perfect.

El Legado

Colonia Department, Branch route 97, Colonia Estrella. Uruguay

Bodega el Legado the Legacy red building near Carmelo Uruguay

Bernardo and Maria Marta Marzuca moved to the Carmelo area and rebuilt an old house that came with a vineyard. The winemaking was just a hobby to be shared with family and friends. The wine was good and soon it was being sold in Colonia del Sacramento. Wine production is limited in this small family winery with less than 4,000 bottles produced annually.

The area of their vineyard is unique. There is a development here called La Concordia. It is known as the First Vineyard District of Uruguay. Small 1-hectare or 2.5-acre farms are offered with vineyards. You can either raise and produce wine yourself or offer your crop to other family vineyards.

We worked with the Hyatt Unbound Carmelo Resort and arranged a private taxi who was known to the hotel. Our driver gave us a card for a return trip but he took it one step further and talked with Bernardo and let him know he would return to pick us up.

Upon arrival, Bernardo greeted us but passed us off to an English speaker who was a friend of the family, and he gave us a tour of the small vineyard. With only 1 hectare, they produce about 8,000 bottles a year. They have 3 different vintages in 2020, a Tannat, a Syrah and a blended wine with 80% Tannat and 20% Syrah. 

Paul and Madeline with new friends from Boston at Bodega el Legado the Legacy property near Carmelo Uruguay

The tour was great because we saw how a small family winery actually works. When it is time to put the wine in the bottles, they have a small machine and they do it one bottle at a time. A separate “cork machine” is hand operated. When they have enough bottles, they move to another room and individually put labels on bottles and put them into cardboard boxes. This is definitely a hands-on operation.

 After our tour, we had a wine tasting in the original house. We started with Syrah and both Madeline and I liked it a lot. Then came the “full-strength” Tannat and it was very good, but a Tannat takes a bit of adjustment because it is much more robust. Then, we used a wine thief and had some of the blended wine.

The vineyard supplements all of this with a very robust wine, cheese and meat plate. Madeline was quite happy to see olives on the plate since we’ve enjoyed olives with wine on many occasions. The cheese and meats on the tray were very good.

asado lunch and wine served in original building at Bodega el Legado the Legacy property near Carmelo Uruguay

After our tasting, it was time for lunch, and they said we’d have a barbecue. Now, in Texas, that has some significance, but in Uruguay, it simply means some grilled meat. We had grilled steak and sausage along with plenty of grilled vegetables including red peppers, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes. 

The meal was great but when we were done, they told us about dessert. They gave us a block of fresh vanilla ice cream topped with a Tannat reduction syrup that was very tasty.

Luckily, our taxi driver was told to pick us up. Uruguayan law is quite strict on driving under the influence, and we had no intention of driving since our taxi was coming back to pick us up. We returned to the resort – quite full from lunch – and typed up our posts so you would have the information while it was fresh in our mind.

Bodega Los Cerros de San Juan

70000 Los Cerros de San Juan, Colonia Department, Uruguay

Bodega Los Cerros de San Juan Uruguay

The Los Cerros de San Juan vineyard was started by a German family. The Lahusen family bought four farms 13 years after the Great War which was between 1864 and 1879. It was the deadliest and bloodiest inter-state war in Latin America’s history. The Lahusen family decided it was time to plan for the future. The four farms were located near the San Juan River and the River Plate on the western part of Uruguay. The particular region reminded them of the Bordeaux region in France. 

The Lahusen family built a new wine cellar and modernized the plant. The family continued to improve the vineyards and planted more varietals. The Booth family entered into this family business through marriage. As a combined family enterprise, they managed the company until 1988 when it was transferred to El Dorado and Alfredo Tara Oyenard. The grapes grown now include Tannat, Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Today there are 111 acres in permanent production resulting in a stock of approximately 50,000 cases of wine every harvest. 

I hope you enjoyed this these posts of perhaps some lesser-known vineyards in Uruguay. You can find Part 2 here. Enjoy your trip to Uruguay.

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