UK wine critics wowed by Uruguay

Could South America have a new contender to challenge the dominance of Chile and Argentina?

Words by Guy Woodward

Photography by Tim Atkin MW

Viña Edén vineyard landscape with green vines and rolling hills in the background

Pop quiz: Which country, outside of Europe, leads the rest of the world in wine consumption per capita? One of the wine-producing nations in the southern hemisphere – New Zealand or Australia, perhaps? Or one of the enthusiastic ‘newer’ Asian markets of Hong Kong or China? Or what about the giants of South America – Chile, Argentina, Brazil?

Getting closer… the answer, in fact, with an impressive average annual intake of 22 litres per person, is Uruguay. It’s not a country hitherto renowned for its wine output – or, indeed, its intake – but that might all be about to change, with a trio of high-profile UK wine writers singing its praises to Club Oenologique.

Tim Atkin MW, Steven Spurrier and Jamie Goode took separate trips to the country in the last six months and each has come back raving about its potential – and, indeed, the current crop of wines.

Atkin had visited once before – over two decades ago. The transformation since, he says, has been “remarkable”, with several significant new players and regions emerging. “The wine scene is both more diverse and more exciting than it was then, and average quality has improved considerably,” said Atkin, who has posted a comprehensive report on the country on his website.

Cerro Guazuvirá, Familia Deicas 1
Cerro Guazuvirá, Familia Deicas

Goode, for whom it was a first visit, was equally positive. “Obviously what everyone knows Uruguay for is Tannat,” he said. “In the past, it’s a variety that produced monster wines, but it’s been tamed and there’s some really good expressions now, with more emphasis on fruit and less on structure.

“The Tannats I saw were less rustic and more polished – they’re mostly very drinkable, balanced wines, and some of them are pretty premium. It’s basically the Uruguayan answer to Argentinian Malbec.”

Atkin agreed: “The thing about Tannat is Uruguay is that, despite its chewy, densely tannic reputation, it’s capable of considerable diversity. It can certainly make wines that age for several decades, but it’s also adept at producing fresh, juicy, even comparatively supple wines in the right hands. Nor does it have to be heavily oaked.”

Uruguay is better placed than ever to make its mark, with more good wines at the top end and a group of dynamic young winemakers

Uruguay is home to just over 200 producers, with around 40 exporting their wines, largely to Brazil, the US and the UK. According to Atkin, global tastes are in their favour.

“Freshness and finesse – the very things that Uruguayan wines possess – are increasingly fashionable,” said the critic. “The volumes and economies of scale aren’t there to take the world by storm, but Uruguay is better placed than ever to make its mark, with more good wines at the top end and a group of dynamic young winemakers who understand the international market.”

For Spurrier, talking to Sarah Kemp as part of her soon-to-launch podcast, The Wine Conversation, while the wines are more “European” in style than those of Argentina and Chile, the Tannats are less robust and less earthy than those of their homeland, Madiran. And while he was hesitant to describe them as “terroir” wines, simply because the term has become overused and undervalued, he was happy to label them “vineyard wines” that are true to their origin.

Spurrier picked out three producers to note: Bracco Bosca, whose wines he applauded for their “real sense of personality – both from of the vineyard and the winemaker [Fabiana Bracco]; Pisano, the long-running family winery whose wines are “impeccable”; and the “all-singing, all-dancing” Garzon, whose wines he described as “remarkable”.

Gabriel Pisano
Gabriel Pisano, the youngest generation of winemakers at Bodega Pisano
Pisano cellar
The cellar at Bodega Pisano

Garzon is the obvious reference point, with Goode describing it as “probably the largest super-premium winery I’ve seen anywhere in the world – seriously impressive.” The producer, which was only founded in 2008, by petrol magnate Alejandro Bulgheroni, relies on the skills of consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini, and also boasts a golf course, two hotels and a restaurant helmed by star chef Francis Mallmann. It is based in Maldonado, which Goode pinpointed as the most exciting region. “It has a really interesting, almost maritime climate, with regular rain but free-draining granitic soils, so works well.”

Goode, for whom Familia Deicas was another producer to note, earmarked Albarino as the variety to watch – with Garzon again a pioneer: “There’s not a lot of it, but the people who are doing it are doing it well.”

Atkin also had praise for the whites, which he said are improving “by the vintage”. “Parts of the country, especially those close to the Atlantic Ocean and the wider expanse of the Río de la Plata, are very well suited to white grapes,” said Atkin, “and Uruguayan winemakers are increasingly realising the potential of their whites. In many ways, these were the greatest revelation of my trip.”

Tim Atkin MW has produced an in-depth report on Uruguay’s wine scene. To read an excerpt from the report, along with his five standout wines, click here. Main image: Vina Eden vineyard.