Hummingbirds flit between jasmine vines and cockspur coral trees in the gardens of Casa Anna, the summer residence of Martin Summers, the renowned English marchand d’art. For most of the year, Casa Anna’s four rooms, connected by a leafy central area with a swimming pool on one side, form part of Hotel Garzón.
One of many Europeans and Americans seeking a quieter life, Summers followed chef Francis Mallmann’s example by making a home in Garzón in southeast Uruguay. Founded in the late 18th century, this tiny village of 200 people around 110 miles from capital city Montevideo saw its reputation touched by Mallmann’s magic wand when he opened Hotel Garzón in 2003, a boutique offering in partnership with the pre-eminent Mendoza winemaker Manuel Mas; together they changed the village forever.
Home to 407ha of vines, over the past decade the rolling hills of the wider Maldonado region have become the country’s hottest wine-growing ticket. Plantings of Tannat, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc sit alongside Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc and have been the main varieties here since the beginning of the 21st century. Three wineries dominate in proximity of the small town itself. The most prominent is Bodega Garzón, where Italian consultant Alberto Antonini leads the way. Then there’s Familia Deicas, where winemaker Paul Hobbs provides guidance, and Compañía Uruguaya de Vinos del Mar, run by Argentinian oenologists Gerardo Michelini and Andrea Mufatto – rebellious winemakers who specialise in natural wine – along with their son Manuel.
Antonini often says the scenery here reminds him of the rolling hills of Tuscany. The panoramas are stunning, and walking around the village takes no more than an hour filled with quiet strolling, greeting the neighbours, looking at the old low-rise houses as they blend in with the fields, and passing by the bridge and the long-abandoned railway station. Bird watching, horse riding, visiting art galleries and tasting wine are just a few of the activities this village offers almost year-round, with the high season starting in November and ending at Easter.
Mallmann’s culinary influence can be found across the area. Whether by the beach or further inland, there are always open wood-fired grills, and on menus you’ll find all manner of meats, grilled peaches and dulce de leche. Locals tend to visit Sabores de Garzón cantina, a simple eatery known for its milanesas.
During the summer, the artists’ residence Campo Garzón, created by American photographer Heidi Lender, serves meals and hosts a series of art events and fundraising activities, and the Walden Gallery opens its café. The town has several galleries and is home to some of Uruguay’s most famous artists. In 2013, the celebrated Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry started Garzón Sculpture Park, a 159ha nature reserve and art trail that is home to over 15,000 species of native plants. Garzón’s growing bohemian reputation has helped lure the likes of Summers.
Chefs often call this area ‘the Uruguay that’s behind you’, because the lush inland setting of Garzón is often overlooked in favour of high-profile beach towns like José Ignacio and Punta del Este, which are both just a stone’s throw away. For the locals, it’s a simple yet fashionable section just off the coast.
Garzón isn’t the only place in Uruguay to encounter such flourishing wine-centric hospitality with a side of highbrow culture. A decade ago, wineries started opening to the public, offering tours, tastings and meals. Throughout the year, you’ll find a calendar of activities – from pruning festivals in the winter, to harvest feasts that pair lamb with wine made from the country’s signature Tannat grape. Mostly family-owned businesses, these wineries are often run by fourth- and fifth-generation winemakers who welcome visitors with passion and warmth, many of the estate owners doing the hosting themselves.
Furthermore, a fresh initiative established by the Ministry of Tourism in conjunction with the National Institute for Vitiviniculutre (INAVI) is showing support for the country’s flourishing scene, helping to publicise recreational activities and guided tours at participating wine estates. At present, 45 wineries have signed up, with many already grouped together on a wine route called Los Caminos del Vino. Operators such as Catadores, Senderos del Tannat and Wine Explorers are now also in the space, helping organise private and group visits to participating wineries.
For your own tour, though, Garzón is the perfect jumping-off point from which to hire a car and work your way west. First stop: José Ignacio, a village famous for its beautiful beaches and popular among surfers. There you’ll find Parador La Huella, where you can eat barefoot in the sand with a glass of Bodega Garzón Pinot Noir rosé in hand. Order the fried silverside, served in a small tin container reminiscent of a fishing bucket, and finish with the famous dulce de leche volcano – a thincooked dough enclosing a molten hot filling of the caramelised confection, served with banana ice cream.
West of José Ignacio, an impressive wooden structure fashioned from eucalyptus pierces the landscape. Designed by Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott and spearheaded by Pablo Atchugarry, MACA in nearby Manantiales is the first museum of contemporary art in Uruguay and is surrounded by a 36ha sculpture park. The gallery showcases the founder’s personal collection, as well as work by special guest artists.
Follow on to Punta del Este, famous for its long, white sandy beaches and its captivating nightlife. At Lo de Tere, a must-visit restaurant, chef María Elena Marfetán champions sustainable, line-caught fish in dishes that range from cured anchovy and octopus carpaccio, to mussels from Isla de Lobos and red crab and shrimp from Laguna de Rocha. While in the area, it’s worth driving to find the former house of famous painter Carlos Páez Vilaró (1923–2014). Get to Casapueblo for a sunset ceremony, where you can listen to a recording of of a poem read by the artist and played aloud in the dying light.
When you’ve had your fill of coastal fun, an inland detour along Route 12 will lead you to Alto de la Ballena, one of the pioneers of winemaking along this coastal stretch, and whose winery offers feasts and activities. Then head to the village of El Edén. Here, Viña Edén winery is embedded in the hills but stands out for its award-winning architecture, its cellar chipped into the stone. Tastings of its mineral-forward wines and tours come as standard, or there’s yoga in the vineyards on Sundays ahead of brunch. La Posta de Vaimaca – a rural restaurant unique for its wood-fired oven cooking and dishes of homemade pasta and locally raised rabbit, pork and lamb – makes for a superb dining experience. End the night at Sacromonte, a luxury hotel that has one of the most spectacular views of the endless rolling hills.
Looping back down to the coast, Piriápolis is the place for sea-influenced whites with bracing acidity. For many, the best Albariños hail from the area (as well as in Garzón). Head for a tasting at Cerro del Toro, where a dining room with observation deck overlooking the vast estate opened to the public just last year. One of Uruguay’s most celebrated wine families, the Bouzas, have also set up shop in the area. Lunch at Las Espinas restaurant (p.126) affords the chance to try their award-winning Merlot or Pinot Noir paired with an exceptional rack of lamb. With sheep reared by the family, it’s as local as it gets.
Although a wine-fuelled coastal road trip ends here, there’s more diversity to discover in the glass in regions like Canelones – where natural wine is booming, and where producers like Bracco Bosca Winery are championing a minimal-intervention approach. Here you’ll also discover accommodation in the form of small Nordic-style cabins that owner Fabiana Bracco runs with great enthusiasm.
And of course, there’s Montevideo. The capital stands out for its proximity to world-class vineyards: Bodegas Bouza and Antigua Bodega Stagnari rule the surrounding countryside. If returning to the city, bunk down at the trendy Costanero Hotel in Montevideo or the elegant Sofitel Carrasco, a French-style Art Deco building from 1921 that has been protected for its contribution to the city’s architecture. Its restaurant, Sofitel 1921, offers the only true fine-dining experience in the city. A short walk from the hotel you’ll also find Manzanar and Café Misterio, restaurants on the more casual side and that focus on locally sourced ingredients.
Uruguay may not have the reputation – or size – of larger South American wine-producing nations such as Argentina and Chile, but it is rightly on the rise. Plus, the cultural and culinary buzz of places like Garzón is starting to spill out into surrounding beach towns. As more and more wineries open up to the public, a compelling road trip awaits.
WINERIES AND BARS TO VISIT IN URUGUAY
- Antigua Bodega Stagnari, Canelones Taste Tannat and Merlot defined by the region’s pink-granite earth, with empanadas served alongside. From US$40.
- Bodegas Bouza, Montevideo A unique setting for sampling from one of the country’s leading wineries – in among the family’s classic car collection. US$90.
- Compañia Uruguaya de Vinos del Mar, Garzón Tastings by appointment can be followed by a trip to the winery’s on-site Bar de Vinos.
- Cerro del Toro, Piriápolis An impressive new space for sampling the first vintages of the winery’s singlevineyard bottlings. From US$25.
- Familia Deicas, Canelones Three tasting experiences, including one focused on wines influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. From US$35.
- Viña Edén, Pueblo Edén The three-level winery offers the opportunity to taste Tannat direct from cement tank. From US$38.
RESTAURANTS TO HAVE ON YOUR RADAR
- Bodega Garzón, Garzón Overlooking Garzón’s rolling hills, this winery serves up a fine-dining experience around the woodfire grill. Chef Nicolás Acosta and pastry chef Lucía De León bring the region’s finest produce to the table. Check ahead for tastings, picnics and other activities.
- García, Montevideo For more than 50 years, García has been one of the finest parrillas (steakhouses) in Montevideo. Owner Eduardo Parodi was one of the first to use high-quality export meat to elevate grilling from a daily meal to a sophisticated experience. Expect old-school service and large portions to share.
- Lo de Tere, Punta del Este Run by chef María Elena Marfetán, Lo de Tere is like a local seafood embassy in Punta del Este. Book ahead for the maritime tasting menu, try the white fish crudos, and don’t miss the grilled fish with pork and lentils.
- Parador la Huella, José Ignacio Uruguay’s most famous restaurant, Parador La Huella regularly ranks on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Eat barefoot in the sand, and don’t miss the locally caught fish, grilled or served as sushi, followed by the dulce de leche volcano.
- Sofitel 1921, Montevideo Located inside the Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco & Spa, this five-star hotel restaurant has one of the best chefs in town: Argentinian-Japanese chef Maximiliano Matsumoto. Here, he creates a fine-dining experience using locally sourced ingredients. Meanwhile, the cellar holds some of the most impressive vintages in the capital.
THINGS TO DO
- Haras Godiva, José Ignacio Located in José Ignacio, Haras Godiva has been leading beachside horseriding activities for almost two decades. From US$134 for day rides.
- MACA (Atchugarry Museum of Contemporary Art), Manantiales In 2013, Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry created the first museum of contemporary art in the country. There’s an open-air sculpture gallery and an enormous space showcasing Atchugarry’s personal work, as well as sharing his sizeable art collection.
- Campo Canteen, Garzón A non-profit artist’s residence with an on-site café. Each December, it takes over the pueblo with the three-day Campo Artfest.
- Walden Gallery, Garzón The modern art space recently launched by the team behind Argentina’s W Gallery acts as a showcase for artists from across South America.
TOP ACCOMMODATION IN URUGUAY
- Hotel Garzón, Garzón This five-room hotel designed by Francis Mallmann reflects all of his charm and sophistication. The bedroom overlooks the central garden perfumed by the scent of a dozen lemon trees, a symbol of abundance. From US$870, including breakfast.
- Sacromonte, Punto del Este With spectacular views of rolling hills, Sacromonte is one of the newest and trendiest hotels in Uruguay. From US$550.
- Bracco Bosca Winery, Canelones This family-owned winery led by winemaker Fabiana Bracco boasts a wooden lodge amid the vines, with two tiny houses, a hot tub and a pool. From US$155.