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Wines of Uruguay

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

The tiny country of Uruguay, with a population of only 3.2 million, has joined South America’s world-class viticulturists. Winemaking is not new to Uruguay, where the first grapevines were planted in the year 1680. Uruguay began experimenting with commercial wine growing in1830. The business remained generally stagnant until 1870, the year a European businessman, Pascual Harriague, brought the rare and obscure Tannat grape to Uruguay from his native France.

(a lazy sea lion in Punta del Este reflects how I feel after my share of wine)

For the next 120 years, until 1990, the wine was sold primarily in-country. To this date 95% of the wine produced in Uruguay is still consumed domestically. However, since the inception of the National Institute of Viticulture (I.N.A.V.I.) in 1987, the industry has been growing exponentially. Uruguay has become the world’s leading producer of both red and white wines made from the Tannat grape. In addition to production of the wines mixed with other varietals, Uruguay is the only country in the world to produce 100% Tannat wine.

Its ideal climate, soils rich in nutrients and combination of flatlands and hills make Uruguay a perfect region for cultivation of the Tannat grape. Located between the wine-producing countries of Argentina and Brazil, its coasts touch the Atlantic Ocean on the East, the Rio de la Plata on the South, and the Rio Uruguay on the West. These diverse geographic and climactic conditions enable selection of specific areas for each type of grape. The moderate to subtropical climate makes irrigation unnecessary. In fact, an amazing 90% of Uruguay’s soil is arable, allowing production of its many varieties of red and white wines in its 280 wineries.

Finally, 100% of the grapes are harvested by hand, an amazing feat in this technological day and age. According to Francisco Carrau owner of Bodegas Carrau, “All grapes are picked by hand in small quantities, in respect for traditional methods. This is done in order to create the sophisticated wine flavors demanded by our international markets. The grapes are taken from vines more than 20 years old.” The Carrau wineries, “Bodegas Carrau,” are leaders in using the Tannat grape for wine production and among the first family to export its wines to other countries. Their Tannats began winning awards in 1888 - a tradition that continues today.

The Carrau family began to grow grapes in the wine region of CatalunaSpain on April 2, 1752. In 1930, the family moved their winery to Uruguay and settled in Las Violetas, about 10 miles from Montevideo. They began growing Nebbiolo and Tannat, whose vines are some of the oldest in the country. They also became pioneers in the production of sparkling wines (methode champenoise) in South America. Today their Xacrat Extra Brut has a lively fruit complexity and is sophisticated enough to be served as a refreshing aperitif or with a meal.

In 1976, the family continued their quest for new regions in which to grow grapes. They discovered that the deep, sandy red soils of Cerro Chapeu-Rivera, in the northeast region of Uruguay close to its border with Brazil, would yield grapes with intense varietal character.

In the past, Tannat wine required either a long period of aging or mixture with other varietals to be drinkable. This meant leaving the wine barreled for several years before it could be marketed. Uruguay’s viticulturists are currently developing methods of getting the wine to market in a much shorter time.

One method is “micro-oxygenation.” The process allows small quantities of oxygen to be slowly released into the wine during fermentation. Similar to decantation of bottled wine, this allows the wine to breathe, rounding its flavor. The second method is to remove the pips earlier than is done with other grapes. The pips in Tannat grapes are more numerous than in most other grapes, accounting for their high tannin content. The goal is to allow the fermenting juices as little exposure as possible to the pips.

Uruguay wines are currently distributed in 30 countries throughout the world. Major consumers include the United States, theUnited KingdomGermanyFranceItaly, Brazil Argentina and others, many of which are wine-producing countries themselves. In addition, Uruguay’s wines are demonstrated at international fairs and routinely-scheduled wine tasting events for media personnel, importers, distributors, corporation leaders and general consumers.

To respond to the demand for Uruguay wines, the wineries that do export are expanding their offerings. Bodegas Carrau now exports Sauvignon Blanc, Tannat, Tannat Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinto Noir to the Washington DC metropolitan area as well as Ct, Mass and other states of the northeast in the United States. They also do small bottling and labeling for specific clients around the world. One of Poland’s top sommeliers orders his Tannat Reserve wine from Bodegas Carrau.

Foreign corporations have been responding to the growing profitability and competitiveness of Uruguay’s viticulture, especially within the past five years. Investors have been focusing their attention on Tannat wine, called by many “the wine of the future.”The wine has won many local and international awards and gold medals since the year 2000 as its unique climactic conditions and wine production methods become known and respected throughout the world.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are among Uruguay’s other red wines. For white wines, one can choose Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and others. Uruguay’s Tannats, however, are uniquely its own. They are all robust, full-flavored wines, ideal with steak and beef. These are wines to complement a hearty meal.

For more information on Wines of Uruguay in the Washington DC metropolitan area, contact: Michael R. Downey Selections, mrdvino@aol.com, 703-875-0426 phone.

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