Quizás la bodega más escénica de “Los Caminos del Vino”.

AFTER several wrong turns through desolate dirt roads, I finally saw Carlos Pizzorno waving at me from the entrance of his vineyard. He is an affable man with wind-worn skin and rough hands, the result of tending personally to the vines. While touring the 50-acre estate, we stopped before two hand-cranked corking machines from the early 1900s, a quaint example of Mr. Pizzorno’s painstaking craftsmanship. Inside the cellar, his 2004 blend of tannat, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot had been aging in bottle for three years. “It will be released when the time is right,” he said. “These wines have my family name and I can’t let it down.”

Pizzorno Family Estates is a winery in Uruguay, a country that began pressing grapes more than a hundred years ago but remains largely unknown in the wine world. Without the financial resources or marketing expertise of its bigger winemaking neighbors, Argentina and Chile, Uruguay lags far behind in recognition. But thanks to a group of ambitious boutique wineries, it is slowly winning over critics and connoisseurs.

“I was favorably impressed by what they are doing,” said Evan Goldstein, a San Francisco master sommelier who recently visited Uruguay. “It’s an industry that candidly wants to get outside, and what’s intrinsically exciting is that it’s all family-owned, which is a rarity in this business.”

Uruguay’s temperate climate is suited for wine growing, with warm summers, cool winters and ocean breezes that flow freely through low hills and plains. The conditions are similar to those of France’s Bordeaux region.

For most of the 20th century, the country produced mainly unsophisticated table reds for local consumption. After a nationwide replanting of imported clone vines, which began in the late ’70s, the industry was finally able to focus on quality. In recent years, about 20 wineries began courting international markets with inventive blends and a signature red called tannat.

Tannat grapes, originally from the southwest of France, were first planted in Uruguay in 1870 by a Basque immigrant. The vines flourished, yielding a suppler taste than their highly astringent (because of high tannin levels) European counterparts.

Having a flagship varietal can be an asset — a case in point is malbec in Argentina — and local growers are hoping to use this grape as their passport to distinction. During my visit in January, winemakers talked about developing tannats that adapt better to global palates (drinkers abroad may find the wine too rustic or earthy), about crafting unique blends, and about diversifying their portfolios with popular grapes.

This is the strategy at Pizzorno (www.pizzornowines.com). When Carlos, grandson of the winery founder Don Próspero José Pizzorno, took over the business in 1983, quality and marketability became paramount. He planted new clones of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, petit verdot, tannat and other varieties, enlisting the help of a New Zealand-born consultant. Today, 60 percent of his wine is sold abroad.

Pizzorno’s tasting room is notably austere, but the wines are encouragingly approachable. We tried a fruity 2008 sauvignon blanc, a peppery 2007 pinot noir with berry aromas, and a brut nature sparkling wine that, to a Champagne lover with no formal training, tasted superbly crisp and refreshing. I took home a bottle for a mere $10.

Viñedo de los Vientos (www.vinedodelosvientos.com) is another small winery with big ideas. The owner, Pablo Fallabrino, inherited the property in 1995, when he was just 21. He has surfer looks and a hang-loose attitude, and is considered somewhat of an iconoclast. “I like to combine techniques, to do weird things,” he said. One of Mr. Fallabrino’s concoctions is a ripasso de tannat, made using a traditional Italian method by which grapes are left to dry for one month under the sun, and the resulting raisins are used to referment a young wine. After 18 months in French oak, the outcome is a hearty, dry red with liqueur aromas.

During our walk through 37 acres of cabernet sauvignon, trebbiano, tannat, gewürztraminer, chardonnay and nebbiolo vines, Mr. Fallabrino talked about his sustainable approach to farming and his conviction that Uruguay needed to focus on a single foreign market. Since the first vintage, Mr. Fallabrino set his sights on the United States and now sells 90 percent of his 60,000 bottles in New York, California and other states.

Back at Viñedo de los Vientos’s casual tasting room, Mariana Cerutti, Mr. Fallabrino’s wife, prepared a shrimp and watercress salad paired with an aromatic white blend called Estival. Next, she brought a basket of unforgettable lamb empanadas, along with a medium-bodied tannat. The finale: handmade strawberry tartines and a sweet, chocolaty dessert wine (labeled Alcyone) that can best be described as addictive.

Most of Uruguay’s 270 wineries are in Canelones, just north of Montevideo. Wine tourism started flourishing about five years ago, when 18 winemakers converged to create a trail called Los Caminos del Vino. Through their site, www.uruguaywinetours.com, visitors can schedule tastings and get help making travel arrangements.

Alto de la Ballena (www.altodelaballena.com) is perhaps the most scenic of these wineries. When Alvaro Lorenzo and his wife, Paula Pivel, decided to turn their love of wine into a business in 1998, they spent months searching for the right terroir, the French term that encompasses both soil and climate. In 2000 they found a rocky hillside plot eight miles from the sea, strategically located near Punta del Este, summer retreat of South America’s glitterati.

There is no tasting room in Alto de la Ballena; we sampled wines and local cheeses on a simple deck with unobstructed vistas of a faraway lagoon, grazing cattle and brushes of alamos and eucalyptuses. It’s hard to mind a lack of infrastructure in a place like that. I tried a 2006 merlot, aged 12 months in French oak, that had wood and raisin aromas; a dry 2008 cabernet franc and tannat rosé, as well as an intriguing 2007 tannat-viognier.

Another required stop is Bouza (www.bodegabouza.com), frontrunner among Uruguay’s new-generation wineries. Nine years ago, the Bouza family bought an abandoned winery with colonial-style facilities near Montevideo, where they planted 12 acres of albariño, chardonnay, merlot and tannat vines (they also have a plot in Canelones). Bouza’s oenologist, Eduardo Boido, practices a style of viticulture known as low-input, paired with a meticulous manual handling and selection of the fruit. The strategy has paid off. The winery’s Tannat A6 Parcela Única (A6 is the name of the parcel where the wine comes from) was lauded by Jancis Robinson in The Financial Times and selected by the Wine Enthusiast as an editors’ choice.

The food at the estate’s restaurant — brick-walled and soberly decorated with leather sofas — is also ambitious. To start, I ordered an arugula and pear salad with Jabugo ham, paired with a dry, citrusy 2008 albariño. A rack of Hampshire Down lamb, raised on the property, seemed like the obvious second course. This flavorful dish married well with their aromatic 2006 Single Parcel Merlot B9, a big, robust wine. In the United States, it sells for $55.

The owner, Juan Bouza, is well aware of his — and Uruguay’s — strengths and weaknesses. “This is not the place for a uniform, massive product,” he said. “But for connoisseurs who have tried a lot of wines, we are very interesting.”

En atractivo turístico, la bodega con más probabilidades de éxito

About every two years, in the course of updating Moon Buenos Aires, I spend a couple weeks in coastal Uruguay, which figures among the book’s excursions. This year, events in Chile also demanded my attention while I was in Colonia, Montevideo, and Punta del Este, so that I haven’t written much about my most recent forays across the River Plate.

Still, I did manage to visit several wineries that I had never seen before, three of them in and around Montevideo, and one just outside Punta del Este, to supplement some of my earlier coverage of the Uruguayan wine world. Uruguay can’t compete with the South American giants of Argentina and Chile, of course, but its unique red Tannat gives it an opening that it otherwise wouldn’t have, and producers have made the most of it. A few years ago, they united to create the Caminos del Vino route for tourists, mostly but not exclusively in and around Montevideo.

Two of the affiliated Wines of Uruguay members I visited are so close to downtown Montevideo that they’re really urban wineries – since its creation in 1898, for instance, Bodegas Santa Rosa has seen the sprawling capital eventually surround it and it no longer has any vineyards here. Now only about a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown, it’s still run by the founding Mutio family, of Basque origins with several generations actively involved; for visitors, it offers an entertaining visit through a maze of tunnels, lined by oversized barrels that are now only for show, that culminates in a huge open space that serves for weddings and other events. Smaller gatherings, including tastings accompanied by cheeses and cured meats, take place in a quiet alcove.

Barely a bike ride away from Santa Rosa, founded by a winemaker who split off from Santa Rosa to found his own company, Bodegas Carrau has a wine-making history that dates back to 18th-century Catalonia. Most of the vineyards are in Las Violetas, about half an hour west, but there’s a small experimental vineyard here that, in season, means visitors can taste the grapes before sampling the final product in its tasting room, to the accompaniment of cheeses and cured meats. In addition to its Las Violetas vineyards, it also has Uruguay’s highest vineyards at Cerro Chapeu, on the Brazilian border near the northern town of Rivera.

One of the most recent additions to the wine route is Bodega Marichal, where descendents of a family of Canary Islanders have been in the area since planting its first vineyards–now consisting of 50 hectares of Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Semillón and Sauvignon Blanc about 50 km west of the capital–in 1910. Having only recently switched to fine wines, Marichal has done a fine job of renovating the historic house of its founders (the winery proper dates from 1938) as a tasting room. Its idea is to use tourism as yet another means to promote its wines, rather than as a revenue-generating activity per se, but it also offers snacks and meals on request.

In sheer tourist appeal, the winery most likely to succeed is Bodega y Viñedos Alto de la Ballena, for its proximity to Punta del Este. On Punta’s western outskirts, the low range of hills known as the Sierra de la Ballena disappears beneath the Río de la Plata estuary but, to the north, it forms a rolling landscape that now includes the winery and vineyard planted with new vines of Merlot, Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and the white Viognier. Owners Álvaro Lorenzo and Paula Pivel (pictured above), who released their first young wines in 2007, are proudest of their unusual Tannat-Viognier blend; the winery and grounds are ideally situated for sunset tours and tasting from its west-facing deck.

Most Uruguayan wineries require 24 hours’ notice for a visit, but some can handle tourists on short notice, so it’s worth phoning just in case – on short notice, though, the smallest wineries may not be able to provide English-language guides. Alternatively, Montevideo’s Daniel Reyes is an agency that offers scheduled half-day tours, in Spanish and English every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

La Calidad es lo que importa

Eu acredito em encontros. No encontro de um grande amor, de uma nova amizade, de um lugar especial, de um vinho e é sobre isso que quero falar aqui. Logo que cheguei no Uruguai, no meu primeiro almoço “fui apresentada” para a bodega Alto de la Ballena. Marcelo Betencourt, chef da Estancia Vik, quem fez as honras da casa. Foi um corte de Tannat e Viogner o primeiro Ballena de minha vida. Houveram muitos …

No último dia em solo uruguaio marquei uma visita à bodega que fica na ruta Nacional KM 16,4 em Maldonado. O tempo estava nublado, fazia quase um friozinho. Alvaro Lorenzo me recebeu com um sorriso e tremenda simpatia. Tão bom ser recepcionado assim, né?

Fomos até a “sala de degustação”, as aspas se dão porque o local em questão era um terraço de madeira pintada de preto com cadeiras e bancos da mesma cor e rústicos. A vista, meus caros, é de arrepiar, mas perdoem-me a luz não estava propícia para fotos de paisagem. Vocês sabem, né? Fotografar é escrever com a luz.

Alvaro é uma pessoa cativante, sabe muito do mundo dos vinhos, fiquei o escutando falar e me dei conta que já aprendi alguma coisa sobre o tema. Ele me contou que a dez anos, ele e Paula Pivel (sua esposa) resolveram fazer uma mudança – ela trabalhava em um banco, ele era advogado, decidiram, então, comprar terras para plantar uvas e produzir vinhos. Assim o fizeram. Em 7,5 hectares plantaram merlots, tannats, cabernets franc, syrahs e viogners. Hoje produzem 30 mil garrafas por ano. Pretendem chegar a 60 mil e parar por aí. Qualidadade é o que importa.

Realmente gostei muito de conhecer o Alvaro e saber um pouco mais da bodega e de seus vinhos, foi um prazer escutar suas histórias e ver a sintonia que existe entre ele e a Paula, um casal sem filhos, por mera casualidade, que namora sua esposa (entrou na listinha dos casais para se inspirar). Conectados por um projeto de vida que é produzir vinhos boutique, que recebem visistantes com o maior prazer (apenas ligue e reserve 598 99602006).