In sheer tourist appeal, the winery most likely to succeed

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.

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