Sunday, 3 February 2013

vinos uruguayos...

during my 4 day-stay in montevideo, i had the pleasure of getting to know the reds, whites, roses (and a bit of bubbles to boot) from the forgotten step-child of south american wine production: Uruguay.
wedged between the powerhouse neighbours of argentina and brazil, the 3.5 million uruguayos (pronounced oo-roo-GWAI-shows in local dialect) are often given a quick glance over on the international scene. throw in the powerhouse wine production of chile, and very few people take the riesgo to get to know the great wines that are produced in this tiny country.

first, the wine industry here is completely different than that of chile or argentina. whereas in chile for example, a "mid-sized" winery produces some 10 million litres a year, in uruguay 1 million litres is considered to be large-scaled. this reflects the low-key, family-operated-for-generations approach to winemaking that permeates uruguayan wine culture.  with approximately 220 bodegas in the country, only one is owned by an international company (but being an argentine company, that's not that far away). the rest are boutique producers who, generally speaking, have been producing a house style of wine for generations to feed their own needs, and then maybe some of their neighbours if needed.

this said, things are starting to change in the industry.  as mentioned above, uruguay has a tiny population, significantly smaller than any other south american country and among the smallest in the spanish-speaking world.  therefore, uruguayan producers are starting to look beyond their peninsula-locked borders to explore new markets and generate increased sales. most, however, do not seek to increase production; merely sell what surplus they have and let the world discover uruguay.

in this capacity, enotourism is developing nicely here.  only a few bodegas, such as #bouza, are among the few that have established tasting rooms to welcome visitors for a tour of their facilities. roughly 85% of uruguay's wineries are concentrated in the greater Montevideo area (the capitol), but others are also setting up in key tourist destinations like Colonia and Maldonado/Punta del Este.

for me, however, a visit to the Pisano winery in the winery-concentrated Canalones district was a definate treat. it is everything that represents uruguayan wine-making tradition; family owned, small production, and consistent house style. here, the Pisano family have been making wines for 3 generations, but what sets Pisano ahead of the pack is their foresight that, on top of making excellent wine, they need to focus on international market distribution. this means that if you are one of the 46 lucky countries to carry their wine (or even find yourself on a KLM business/first class flight), you too can enjoy some of the best uruguay has to offer.

tired of argentine malbec? then shift over to uruguay for their signature tannat grape. brought to the country in the late 19th century, tannat is the grape of the Madiran region of southwest france. full-bodied, dark-fruit character and strong tannins will easily please any malbec lover looking to branch out into new horizons. Cab-Sauv, Merlot, and Petit Verdot also show signs of promise here (check out Pisano's RPF Petit Verdot - yum!), but since uruguay is argued to have south america's only true maritime climate, such as found in Bordeaux, then no wonder these grapes do so well.

and how about innovation? according to pisano, each winery has a tannat and some classic varietals; what makes uruguay unique is each winery also tries to bring something different to the table - literally! for example, Pisano is the only non-Argentine producer to make a line of Torrontes. a handful do some amazing albarino, and check out the tempranillo from Bouza too. oh, and if you really want to wine geek out, try the fully-red sparkling tannat from Pisano!

in the end, of course, it's all about wine, food and travel. since i haven't made a food relation yet, uruguayan tannat will make so much more sense when you have a big hunk of meat with it. at a nearby restaurant in montevideo, i ordered a glass of pueblo del sol's tannat to go with my chivito: a classic uruguayan flank-steak sandwich with tomato, lettuce, mayo and mustard. (nb: a chivito in argentina is a kind of goat; a chivito canadiense, or "canadian chivito," adds olives, muzzarella, bell peppers, and ham to the sandwhich - doesn't sound canadian to me, but i digress...). the first few sips of the tannat were grippy to say the least; as the name of the grape leads you to believe, there is quite alot of tannin in tannat. take a bite of that juicy chivito, however, and the wine is lucious and juicy; a perfect bbq match if you ask me.

so, when shopping at your local store for your weekend malbec, branch out and have a go of uruguayan tannt; i promise it will not let you down, and like the few who have the chance to make it here, you will understand why uruguayan way is the way to go.

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