Paula Pivel, at Alto de la Ballena, the winery she and her husband started in 2000 near Punta del Este.
Without the financial resources or marketing expertise of its bigger winemaking neighbors, Argentina and Chile, Uruguay lags far behind in recognition. But thanks to a group of ambitious boutique wineries, it is slowly winning over critics and connoisseurs.
I was favorably impressed by what they are doing, said Evan Goldstein, a San Francisco master sommelier who recently visited Uruguay. Its an industry that candidly wants to get outside, and whats intrinsically exciting is that its all family-owned, which is a rarity in this business.
Uruguays temperate climate is suited for wine growing, with warm summers, cool winters and ocean
breezes that flow freely through low hills and plains. The conditions are similar to those of Frances Bordeaux region.
For most of the 20th century, the country produced mainly unsophisticated table reds for local consumption. After a nationwide replanting of imported clone vines, which began in the late 70s, the industry was finally able to focus on quality. In recent years, about 20 wineries began courting international markets with inventive blends and a signature red called tannat.
Tannat grapes, originally from the southwest of France, were first planted in Uruguay in 1870 by a Basque immigrant. The vines flourished, yielding a suppler taste than their highly astringent (because of high tannin levels) European counterparts.
Having a flagship varietal can be an asset a case in point is malbec in Argentina and local growers are hoping to use this grape as their passport to distinction. During my visit in January, winemakers talked about developing tannats that adapt better to global palates (drinkers abroad may find the wine too rustic or earthy), about crafting unique blends, and about diversifying their portfolios with popular grapes.
This is the strategy at Pizzorno (www.pizzornowines.com)
When Carlos, grandson of the winery founder Don Próspero José Pizzorno, took over the business in 1983, quality and marketability became paramount. He planted new clones of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, petit verdot, tannat and other varieties, enlisting the help of a New Zealand-born consultant. Today, 60 percent of his wine is sold abroad.
Pizzornos tasting room is notably austere, but the wines are encouragingly approachable. We tried a fruity 2008 sauvignon blanc, a peppery 2007 pinot noir with berry aromas, and a brut nature sparkling wine that, to a Champagne lover with no formal training, tasted superbly crisp and refreshing. I took home a bottle for a mere $10.
Viñedo de los Vientos (www.vinedodelosvientos.com)
is another small winery with big ideas. The owner, Pablo Fallabrino, inherited the property in 1995, when he was just 21. He has surfer looks and a hang-loose attitude, and is considered somewhat of an iconoclast. I like to combine techniques, to do weird things, he said. One of Mr. Fallabrinos concoctions is a ripasso de tannat, made using a traditional Italian method by which grapes are left to dry for one month under the sun, and the resulting raisins are used to referment a young wine. After 18 months in French oak, the outcome is a hearty, dry red with liqueur aromas.
During our walk through 37 acres of cabernet sauvignon, trebbiano, tannat, gewürztraminer, chardonnay and nebbiolo vines, Mr. Fallabrino talked about his sustainable approach to farming and his conviction that Uruguay needed to focus on a single foreign market. Since the first vintage, Mr. Fallabrino set his sights on the United States and now sells 90 percent of his 60,000 bottles in New York, California and other states.
Back at Viñedo de los Vientoss casual tasting room, Mariana Cerutti, Mr. Fallabrinos wife, prepared a shrimp and watercress salad paired with an aromatic white blend called Estival. Next, she brought a basket of unforgettable lamb empanadas, along with a medium-bodied tannat. The finale: handmade strawberry tartines and a sweet, chocolaty dessert wine (labeled Alcyone) that can best be described as addictive.
Most of Uruguays 270 wineries are in Canelones, just north of Montevideo. Wine tourism started flourishing about five years ago, when 18 winemakers converged to create a trail called Los Caminos del Vino. Through their site, www.uruguaywinetours.com
, visitors can schedule tastings and get help making travel arrangements.
Alto de la Ballena (www.altodelaballena.com)http://www.altodelaballena.com/ is perhaps the most scenic of these wineries. When Alvaro Lorenzo and his wife, Paula Pivel, decided to turn their love of wine into a business in 1998, they spent months searching for the right terroir, the French term that encompasses both soil and climate. In 2000 they found a rocky hillside plot eight miles from the sea, strategically located near Punta del Este
, summer retreat of South Americas glitterati.
There is no tasting room in Alto de la Ballena; we sampled wines and local cheeses on a simple deck with unobstructed vistas of a faraway lagoon, grazing cattle and brushes of alamos and eucalyptuses. Its hard to mind a lack of infrastructure in a place like that. I tried a 2006 merlot, aged 12 months in French oak, that had wood and raisin aromas; a dry 2008 cabernet franc and tannat rosé, as well as an intriguing 2007 tannat-viognier.
Another required stop is Bouza (www.bodegabouza.com)
, frontrunner among Uruguays new-generation wineries. Nine years ago, the Bouza family bought an abandoned winery with colonial-style facilities near Montevideo, where they planted 12 acres of albariño, chardonnay, merlot and tannat vines (they also have a plot in Canelones). Bouzas oenologist, Eduardo Boido, practices a style of viticulture known as low-input, paired with a meticulous manual handling and selection of the fruit. The strategy has paid off. The winerys Tannat A6 Parcela Única (A6 is the name of the parcel where the wine comes from) was lauded by Jancis Robinson in The Financial Times and selected by the Wine Enthusiast as an editors choice.
The food at the estates restaurant brick-walled and soberly decorated with leather sofas is also ambitious. To start, I ordered an arugula and pear salad with Jabugo ham, paired with a dry, citrusy 2008 albariño. A rack of Hampshire Down lamb, raised on the property, seemed like the obvious second course. This flavorful dish married well with their aromatic 2006 Single Parcel Merlot B9, a big, robust wine. In the United States, it sells for $55.
The owner, Juan Bouza, is well aware of his and Uruguays strengths and weaknesses. This is not the place for a uniform, massive product, he said. But for connoisseurs who have tried a lot of wines, we are very interesting.
Photos: Horacio Paone for The New York Times