History of wine in Uruguay

The History of Wine in Uruguay

Uruguay’s wine story developed in tandem with its foundation as an independent country. The earliest vineyards were planted in the 1720s, but the wine industry really took off with the arrival of European immigrants in the 1800s.

In the 1980s, aware of a do-or-die moment, family winemakers banded together to standardize and elevate quality. The result was a third-party verified label and the National Viticultural Institute.

Origins

Uruguay has long been a country of family-run wineries. Its storied heritage combines European winemaking traditions with New World innovation, and today the wines of this often-overlooked country are rising in both critical and commercial estimation.

The first grapes were planted in the late 1800s by a Basque immigrant named Pascual Harriague—known in the local lingo as “Harraigue.” His introduction of the variety that would become the national symbol of Uruguay—Tannat—helped the country establish itself as a significant winemaker. This tannic, chewy grape is a favorite among Uruguayans as it has one of the highest levels of polyphenols (the magical compounds that extend the lifespans of lab rats) of any other variety of wine.

It was not until the 1980s that Uruguay’s viticulture was reborn after a military dictatorship nearly destroyed it. During this time, families gathered together and created a standard for quality called VCP, or Vino de Calidad Preferencial (Wines of Preferred Quality), which has been the foundation for all the nation’s wines since.

In addition to establishing quality standards, Uruguay’s winemakers are constantly experimenting with new styles and vineyards. This has resulted in wines that can be described as distinctly Uruguayan with an international flavor. The combination of the Atlantic Ocean’s influence, high-quality terroir, and a passionate group of winemakers is a formula for success that has not gone unnoticed.

Currently, there are around 180 wineries in Uruguay, and about 10% of them export their products. Most of the wine produced here is consumed locally, and many of the producers are willing to welcome visitors to their vineyards and cellars. The country is also home to a number of multi-generational wineries that have embraced sustainability and innovation with their vineyards. In fact, these winemakers have been pioneers in single-vineyard winemaking, micro-vinifications, controlled and cool ferments, and hand-selection of berries. As a result, they are making wines that can stand up to the best from Argentina and Chile. It is truly a wine country to discover. Whether it is the vibrant coastal Albarino of Bodega Bouza or the bold Balasto, made from Tannat and Cabernet Franc, the wines of this under-the-radar country are a must-try.

Varieties

The story of Uruguayan wine has developed in tandem with the development of the country as an independent nation. Although vines may have been planted earlier – there are records of Jesuits making wine in eastern Uruguay in the 1720s – commercial viticulture really took off with the arrival of European immigrants towards the end of the 19th century.

These settlers brought with them their local grape varieties, one of the most famous being Tannat from the region of Bearn in southwestern France. The grape thrives in Uruguay because of its tannic structure and consistently warm temperatures, but it also has the advantage of being highly resilient to rain.

Tannat is still a staple in Uruguayan wine production, but it is now joined by a variety of lesser-known grapes and styles. The majority of the country’s wine is made from red blends, but there are a growing number of producers creating single-origin wines that showcase the unique flavors of these varietals. These wines are a perfect choice for the experienced wine drinker who can appreciate their well-balanced flavor notes.

If you look at the list of Uruguay’s wineries, you will find many small, family-run operations. This is because Uruguayan wine producers understand that quality wine cannot be mass-produced. Instead, they focus on a quality approach to their products and have cultivated high standards in the vineyard and cellar.

The country’s terroir also makes it unique, which is why winemakers are now moving away from the traditional blends and into producing more single-varietal wines. They are taking advantage of the varying characteristics that the soils and climate bring to their grapes, as well as creating wines that reflect Uruguay’s terroir.

While Uruguay may be small, it is a force to be reckoned with on the international wine stage. Its progressive, risk-taking culture has created a uniquely different wine scene that deserves the attention of wine lovers across the globe. The wine scene is growing and maturing, but it will take time for Uruguayan wines to make their mark on the world stage.

Winemaking

The small, South American country of Uruguay is best known for its red wines made from Tannat grapes and for whites produced from Albarino. It’s also home to lesser-known varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Marselan.

The winemaking process in Uruguay is much like that of other New World regions. It’s a thriving industry that has grown exponentially over the past 20 years as more Uruguayan families are able to invest in their vineyards and export channels. Uruguay is now South America’s fourth-largest wine producer and has an international reputation that is growing by the day.

Viniculture in Uruguay began in the 1700s when Jesuits planted vines in what was then a British colony, but the country’s wine boom didn’t happen until a century and a half later. Immigrants from Italy and Spain brought over an estimated 80 different varieties of grapevine, but none of them panned out, as well as the French-Basque variety that is now Uruguay’s signature grape: Tannat.

This thick-skinned grape withstands Uruguay’s windy Atlantic climate and wet, clay soils, resulting in deep, fruity wines with a savory edge. While some producers are experimenting with other grapes, such as Malbec and Merlot, Tannat continues to dominate.

With the help of INAVI, a government-run institute, winemaking in Uruguay has been modernized and elevated to the level that many New World wineries would envy. The country’s winemakers are working diligently to establish an identity for Uruguayan wines, while promoting their products around the globe.

While Uruguay’s winemaking community is relatively young, it is already gaining recognition worldwide for its quality and value. The nation’s boutique, family-owned wineries focus on ensuring sustainable production through environmentally friendly farming practices and producing wines with a unique sense of place.

For example, a wine made from Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Marselan from Bodega Familia Decias in Canelones is bold and juicy with blueberries and crushed plums, dark chocolate, pepper and a savory edge. This is a great wine to pair with hearty steaks and other grilled meats. It was aged for 20 months in untoasted French oak barrels and has a total alcohol content of 14.8%.

Marketing

For decades Uruguayan wineries toiled in international obscurity, their focus trained on the country’s thirsty domestic market. That was probably a smart move, as the nation shares many cultural and culinary customs with Argentina, making beef a popular meat staple. Luckily, over the last 20 years, Uruguayan producers have realized that they must grow their brands internationally or die trying. Consistent export channels and an international reputation for quality have become a priority, and Uruguayan wines are finally starting to make their mark.

Uruguay is a very small country, and its winemakers tend to be quite close-knit. They also take their wine very seriously and are working hard to develop a Uruguayan identity of their own. As a result, the best Uruguayan wines are often quite distinctive, and the artisanal feel is evident on every bottle of wine that you taste from this proudly different South American origin.

While most of the vineyards in Uruguay are planted with Tannat, a large number of excellent white wines are being produced in the country as well. Producers like Familia Deicas, who are known for their Albarino wines, have taken an unconventional approach to promoting their wines. While they still produce a good amount of Tannat, they have decided to plant a portion of their vineyards with Albarino and are now producing some of the most exciting white wines in Uruguay.

Another of Uruguay’s defining qualities is its diversity in soils. The country is very flat, and there are pockets of old weathered granite, pegmatite, and schist that provide unique and contrasting terroirs. Whether it’s a Tannat from the more rugged, windblown hills of the north, or one from the coastal region that is influenced by oceanic breezes, these varied terroirs give Uruguayan wines a distinct personality that will appeal to adventurous consumers who are seeking something new and different.

There is much to discover about this small but mighty, South American country. Its progressive, risk-taking culture has helped it carve out a unique identity in wine, and it’s time that more people discovered this gem.

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Also read: History of Argentine Wine in Colonial Times

Want to read more? Try these books!

A Tour of Uruguay- A Journey of Wine The Uruguay Wine Guide- The definitive guide to wine in Uruguay by The South America Wine Guide

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: November 2, 2022Last Updated: February 27, 2024

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