Worth the hunt: Wines of Uruguay deserve more attention

    Uruguay is the fourth-largest wine producer in South America, but it has struggled for recognition in the outside world. When I visited 10 years ago, it seemed poised for prominence: Foreign investment was funding new projects; production was expanding to new areas; more producers were finding importers in the U.S.

   Despite occasional articles over the years singing Uruguay’s praises, progress has been slow. It’s not that Uruguayan wines don’t deserve recognition. The wines are better than ever, and the offerings have gotten more diverse, with something for nearly every taste. But many of them are still relatively hard to find.

   There’s also the matter of the grape variety that Uruguay is best known for: tannat. Not exactly a household word. (For the uninitiated, it’s a dark, full-bodied, spicy red from southwestern France, introduced to Uruguay in the 1870s.) But the country is also having success with the better-known albariño, and there are good versions of varieties such as sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. There’s even a little zinfandel, at the American-owned Artesana Winery.

The expansive vineyards of Bodega Garzón in Uruguay. (Photo courtesy of Uruguay Wine)

   Most of Uruguay’s growing regions have a cool, rainy, maritime climate, influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. Some experts compare it to Bordeaux. One reason for tannat’s desirability for vintners is that its thick skins can tolerate the damp conditions, and the grape resists rot. There are more than 14,000 acres of vineyards in the country, with tannat accounting for about 4,000.

   I revisited a collection of Uruguayan wines a few months ago via an online tasting. Starting with the whites, the 2022 Familia Traversa Sauvignon Blanc ($12) was very fresh, with peach, melon and some tropical notes but not a bit of grassiness. The 2021 Cerro Chapeu Castel Pujol Folklore Blanco ($22), from a warmer area in the north, near the Brazilian border, is a blend of 70 percent trebbiano and 30 percent malvasia. It’s quite floral, with crisp white fruit and a long, racy finish. And at only 11.5 percent alcohol, it’s a great wine for summer.

    While the tasting didn’t include any albariños, there was the 2022 Establecimiento Juanicó Don Pascual Coastal White ($12), a blend of albariño, chardonnay, pinot gris and verdejo. It’s refreshing, racy and mouth-filling, with peach and golden apple flavors and a fabulous price.

   Albariño would seem to be a natural fit with the cooler parts of Uruguay because the climate is also similar to that of the grape’s Iberian home of Galicia and northern Portugal. And one producer that’s had stellar results with it is Garzón, the largest producer of albariño in South America. Just over 100 acres of the estate’s nearly 500 acres is devoted to the grape, and the wine has decent availability here. It usually costs around $20.

   Garzón also produces some excellent tannats that are exported to the States. Our tasting included the 2020 Garzón Single Vineyard Tannat ($32), which is inky-dark, full-bodied and a little peppery, with dark fruit, a hint of earthiness and firm tannins. It could use a few years in the bottle. The regular bottling of tannat is more widely available and should cost about $20.

   The 2018 El Capricho Aguará Tannat ($55) is spicy and full-bodied, with dark berry, cloves, firm tannins and a long, drying finish.

   Tannat dominates a blend from the aforementioned Artesana, the 2020 Tannat-Merlot-Zinfandel Reserva ($23). The wine is fresh and silky, with ample berry fruit. It wears its 15.4 percent alcohol well.   

   As for other reds, one interesting bottling was the 2020 Viña Progreso Overground Cabernet Franc ($26), with its peppery aromas, flavors of black cherry and cracked pepper, and medium weight and tannins. A nicely done version of cab franc.

   Some of these wines may be hard to find. So if you see a different Uruguayan wine, and the price is to your liking, give it a try.

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