Uruguay Wine History
Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America, but despite its small size about other countries, its wine production is quite respectable. It is South America’s 4th largest wine producer, behind Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. Let’s learn about Uruguay’s Wine History and its contribution to the world of wine.
The first vineyards in Uruguay
The Charruas Indians initially populated Uruguay, but in 1680 the Portuguese began to settle in the region, and the Spanish arrived soon after. The country, as we know it today, came into existence with the declaration of independence in 1828, when established as a Republic, after several years of bloody wars involving Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil.
Already at this time, due to European influence, grapes were being grown in the region. The first wine grapes were cultivated in Uruguayan territory more than 250 years ago. Wine production, however, only began to be done commercially in the second half of the nineteenth century by immigrants who introduced new varieties and their knowledge of cultivation that they had learned in Europe.
In 1870, two vineyards appeared on Uruguayan soils: Frenchman Pascual Harriague in San Antonio Chico in the Salto region and Catalan Francisco Vidiella in Colón in the Montevideo region.
In 1878, Francisco Vidiella was already cultivating European varieties that adapted to the Uruguayan terroir fantastically.
The Frenchman Pascual Harriague introduced a variety that became the symbol grape of Uruguay, the Tannat, imported from Concordia, Argentina.
Pascual Harriague became the pioneer in the Uruguayan wine industry, and his importance is so great that the Tannat grape is also known as Harriague in his honor.
Many other producers emerged, and Uruguayan viticulture strengthened and became prosperous until 1898, when phylloxera appeared.
Phylloxera in Uruguay
The first measure of the Uruguayan government to combat the phylloxera plague was to exterminate all the vines attacked by the plague with fire and to force them to be replaced by grafted plants with American vines.
Recovery was slow, but the result was positive. Production began to resume its growth trajectory, and this process showed that grafted vines proved significantly more productive than direct planting. Together with adopting organic fertilizers, it created new Uruguayan viticulture.
On July 17, 1903, the first Uruguayan Wine Law was passed, aimed at regulating the production and commercialization of wine.
This law allowed the Uruguayan wine industry to begin a consolidation phase with quality control, data registration, production census, and teaching viticulture in the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of the Republic and the School of Viticulture.
Modernization of the vineyards
In 1970 there was a renewal in Uruguayan viticulture, with the creation of new planting and cultivation techniques, as well as the introduction of new grape varieties that enabled the development of the Uruguayan wine industry.
The evolution of Uruguayan wines involves the artisanal way and the respectful relationship that Uruguayans have with the cultivation of grapes, which reflects in award-winning wines and recognition in the world market.
Most grown grapes
The small Uruguayan territory has vineyards in almost all its extensions. 16 of the 19 states have vineyards, most of which are red grapes, accounting for more than 80% of the grapes grown in Uruguay.
The Tannat is considered the symbol grape of the country and represents 44% of the plantations in Uruguay. This grape has brought recognition for Uruguayan viticulture and numerous international awards.
This grape was brought from France by Pascual Harriague and adapted very well to the Uruguayan terroir with clay soils and the Atlantic breeze. Today Uruguay is the world’s leading producer of the Tannat grape, with production surpassing that of its country of origin.
Other red varieties are also prominent in Uruguayan production, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Marselan, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.
Among the white grape varieties, the one that stands out the most is Albariño, which found the ideal conditions for its development in Uruguay and is gaining worldwide recognition for the quality of its wines.
Other white varieties also prominent in the production of wines in Uruguay are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier.
Uruguay is a country where we find vineyards in almost all of its territory. As mentioned above, there is the cultivation and wine production in 16 of its 19 states, divided into six regions:
The North Coast has three sub-regions: Artigas, Salto, and Paysandú. This region has 184 hectares and accounts for 3% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
This region has an altitude between 50 and 60m above sea level. There are 14 hectares and corresponding to 0.2% of Uruguayan vineyards.
A region with a humid climate with a strong influence of the Uruguay and Daymán Rivers that provides an excellent thermal amplitude, there are 55 hectares and correspond to 0.9% of Uruguayan vineyards.
Another region that influences the Uruguay River, the soil in this region is relatively fertile, and that makes the Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes develop. There are 115 hectares which correspond to 1.9% of Uruguayan vineyards.
The South Coast has three sub-regions: Colonia, Rio Negro, and Soriano. This region has 392 hectares and corresponds to 5.7% of Uruguayan vineyards.
Colonia is a historic region that is home to the country’s first city and the oldest winery in the country. This region covers 335 hectares and accounts for 5.6% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
Rio Negro and Soriano:
These are two small sub-regions. Rio Negro is the smallest wine region in Uruguay, with only one vineyard of 0.2 hectares, while Soriano has 4 hectares of vineyards.
The Metropolitan region is the largest area of Uruguayan wine production. It’s divided into three sub-regions that concentrate 70% of the wineries: Canelones, Montevideo, and San Jose. It has 4,961 hectares and corresponds to 82.8% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
Responsible for 60% of national production, it has 3,958 hectares and corresponds to 66.1% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
It is the country’s capital and where we can find some of the oldest vineyards. It has 714 hectares and corresponds to 11.9% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
The sub-region of San José is the 4th largest wine producer in the country, and it has 289 hectares and corresponds to 4.8% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
This region also has three sub-regions that total 42 hectares. It is a region with a warm climate and more sun exposure than the others. The sub-regions are Durazno, Florida, and Lavalleja.
The Durazno sub-region has a climate that helps the grapes ripen early. It has 17 hectares which correspond to 0.3% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
The sub-region of Florida has 17 hectares and corresponds to 0.3% of the country’s vineyards.
This sub-region has only 8 hectares and corresponds to 0.1% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
This region has a significant influence from the Atlantic, has a higher altitude, and has only two sub-regions, Rocha and Maldonado.
The sub-region of Rocha has only four vineyards with 19 hectares, which corresponds to 0.3% of Uruguayan vineyards.
The Maldonado sub-region has about 38 vineyards with 411 hectares, corresponding to 6.9% of the country’s entire vineyards.
The Northern region has two sub-regions corresponding to 36 hectares and 0.6% of Uruguay’s vineyards. They are the sub-regions of Tacuarembó and Rivera.
The sub-region of Tacuarembó corresponds to only 0.1% of Uruguay’s vineyards and has 8 hectares divided into five vineyards.
The hillside vineyards are the main characteristic of the sub-region of Rivera, which is close to the border with Brazil, has an altitude that can reach up to 220m above sea level, and is an excellent terroir for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It has 28 hectares and accounts for 0.5% of Uruguay’s vineyards.
Sustainable Viticulture Program.
INAVI creates the Sustainable Viticulture Program to promote respect for the environment, minimizing risks in the working conditions and the health of the workers in the sector.
The program allows grapes to be grown sustainably, guaranteeing their quality and certifying the vineyards based on environmental management, cultural practices, respect for people, and pest control methods.
Only wines made with grapes from certified vineyards may include reference to the program, ensuring that misleading promotions occur when marketing wines made with uncertified grapes or not produced in a location with a certification cost chain.
There is a brief introduction to Uruguay’s wine history!
Also read: This Day in Burgundy Wine History