“Todo se transforma” – everything changes – is one of the best-loved songs by Jorge Drexler, Uruguay’s most famous musician and its only Oscar winner. Drexler lives in Madrid these days, but his inspirational lyrics, complete with a reference to a glass of red, represent the trajectory of his native country’s wine scene since my previous visit in 1999. The transformation has been remarkable, with several important new players and regions emerging in the interim. Touching down for a week-long visit early this year, it was a great time to return.
I got to know Uruguay better this time, partly because my Spanish has improved in the intervening two decades, but also because I had more time to sit and talk to producers while I was there and read widely when I got back – one of the few positive things about the current lockdown. My fascination with the country has only deepened since my return.
Main image from Bodega Garzon.
On first acquaintance, Uruguay has much in common with Argentina, its southern neighbour and rival. Both countries eat industrial quantities of beef and are fond of an asado, or barbecue; both drink litres of mate (although the Uruguayans prefer it “sin palo” or without stems); and both love football, dulce de leche and music, especially tango, whose origins are disputed between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Wine, too, is part of daily life on both sides of the Río de la Plata, although here the Argentinians come second in terms of quantity. Outside Europe, the Uruguayans lead the world in per capita consumption.
And yet those similarities are deceptive. Examine them more closely and the two countries are as different as Canada and the United States or New Zealand and Australia. In fact, the comparisons have a degree of validity. Uruguayans are on the quieter, less flamboyant team, more prone to contemplation, melancholy, poetry and intense debate. (Though I’m told that the Montevideo Carnival can last for a month, so perhaps there’s a more boisterous side to them, just waiting for a good excuse to party.)
And what about the wines? Avoid the everyday stuff sold in local supermarkets, the way you would in Chile and Argentina too, and they are way better than what I tasted back in 1999. The wine scene is both more diverse and more exciting than it was then and average quality has improved considerably, especially when it comes to the indiscriminate use of sawdusty oak. Back then, Uruguayan winemakers seemed to associate wood with quality. Now they are much more circumspect. I’m not the only one who’s matured in middle age.
Uruguay has a tradition of winemaking that stretches back to the second half of the 19th century and quite possibly before that, but in many ways, it is a young presence on the world scene. Some good wines were made in the 1970s and 1980s – I’ve been lucky enough to taste some of them – but world-class ones are much more recent. Uruguay is making the best wines in its history. What’s more, there are surely even better things to come.
My report on the country’s wines was launched, quite by chance, on Uruguayan Tannat day, so I hope that its publication will encourage a few people to open a bottle of the country’s most distinctive red grape. Tannat is famously high in compounds that help you live longer. It’s why old timers in the goose-fat belt of the south-west of France regularly survive into their nineties, happily supping a daily glass of Madiran or Saint-Mont. But today I’d like Tannat to be a wine of celebration. Let’s toast what Uruguayan winemakers have achieved over the last two decades and, at this most difficult of times, give ourselves an excuse to smile.