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Uruguay II: Great New Wine and Food Destinations

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New plantings in Garzón, north of Punta del Este New plantings in Garzón, north of Punta del Este

Uruguay's booming economy and rapidly improving wine culture are creating great options for wine and food holidays in this delightful small South American country, with its great beaches and increasingly delicious wines.

Uruguay's economy--which grew by 8% per year during most of the last decade--was certainly the most dramatic change since I last spent time there 26 years ago. And the dollar's value continues to shrink there.

Uruguayan beef--grass fed and free range--is some of the best in the world, and it's responsible for over one-third of Uruguay's export revenue. Uruguayans are beef connoisseurs, and there are plenty of parillada (barbecue) places where you can try all the parts of the cow that are particularly prized there.

My favorite culinary treat in Uruguay is the national sandwich called the chivito. It is made of thinly sliced beef, usually the lomo cut, stacked with lettuce, tomato, Canadian bacon, mozzarella, fried egg and other garnishes, if you want, served in a delicious fresh and light bun. In the '80s, these culinary gems used to cost me between $1 and 1.50, an amazing bargain given the quality and deliciousness of the ingredients. Now they run $12 to $15. Even a combo meal at McDonald's now runs over $9 in Uruguay.

a chivito at American Bar in in Nueva Helvecia a chivito, from American Bar in in Nueva Helvecia

Four of the newer wine producers I visited there recently are Alto de la Ballena, Artesana, Bouza, Garzón and Narbona. Three are quite recent ventures; the oldest of these can date its origins back only to the mid-'90s. Unlike the longtime producers profiled here in part 1, all of which are Uruguayan owned, two of these wineries are owned by wealthy Argentines while another has an American proprietor. All four are achieving impressive results, further demonstrating the tremendous promise of the Uruguayan wine industry.

Paula Pivel and Alvaro Lorenzo Paula Pivel and Alvaro Lorenzo

Alto de la Ballena, owned by wife and husband Paula Pivel and Alvaro Lorenzo, pioneered vineyards in Maldonado, an immensely promising region for growing wine grapes in the southeastern area of Uruguay near the popular resort city and beaches of Punta del Este. They first planted in 2001 to 2002, and the results have been pretty extraordinary.

Cetus is the name of their icon wine, a Syrah. It is very impressive, complex and delicious--94 points in my book. They also made a port-style wine from Cab Franc in 2011 that was remarkably good. This is definitely a project to watch, and one very much deserving of U.S. distribution, which it will soon receive from a company called Face to Face Wines based in Los Angeles.

Artesana is a relatively new project founded by an American, Blake Heinemann. Blake is originally from California but now lives in Philadelphia, where he is a vice president at Sunoco. Blake's niece Leslie Fellows, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, manages the project, along with its two winemakers. What is distinctive here is the California feel to the wines and Uruguay's first Zinfandel bottlings.

Their first vintage was 2010, and their first Zin was produced in 2011. These are big, full-bodied, rich wines, which might well be mistaken for Napa reds in a blindtasting. My favorites were the 2011 Zinfandel Reserva, which is complex and tasty, wearing its 15.8% alcohol remarkably well, and the rich and powerful 2011 Tannat-Zin-Merlot blend. I rated both 92 points. The 2011 Tannat and Tannat-Merlot were also quite good in a rich, concentrated style.

Bodega Bouza Boutique was founded by Juan and Elisa Bouza, who made a lot of money from selling their frozen food business. They put some of those proceeds toward lovingly restoring an old winery they bought in 1998, buying and planting vineyards, and building a very attractive restaurant on the property, which also includes an old luxury railroad car and a small automobile museum.

Bouza's wines, made by Dr. Eduardo Boido, are impressive, big and rich. The Albariño is very aromatic and balanced, with crisp acidity. The Chardonnay has lovely, firm texture and lots of appealing flavor. The Merlot is complex and quite delicious, with a sense of salinity. The Tannats were, however, the star of a strong lineup for me, with the delicious, complex and very rich single parcel bottling, the B2, coming in at 95 points for me. The A6 bottling was almost as strong at 94+ points.

They are the most widely available in the U.S. at the moment of the four producers summarized here.

Garzón's massive plantings are audacious and breathtaking by Uruguayan standards. The owner, Argentine oil and gas billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, hired former Antinori chief winemaker Alberto Antonini in 2007 to advise on where and what to plant to make wine in Uruguay.

Besides the spectacular new plantings on the slopes in Garzón, which vaguely resemble the rolling hills of Chianti to me, this property includes a winding river, exotic wildlife and a very attractive winery visitors center.

The potential of this massive, beautiful and carefully designed new vineyard seems quite extraordinary. As it is, the whites are already showing well, especially the minerally and crisp Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc.

Narbona is the name of a newer winery that honors a Frenchman, Juan de Narbona, who pioneered winemaking in the Carmelo region of Uruguay near the Argentine border when he imported grape varieties from France in 1920. Argentine hotelier and real estate developer Eduardo "Pacha" Cantón bought Narbona's old home and abandoned vineyards, which he replanted from 1994 to 1996.

Cantón and his wife not only restored the Narbona home and winery as a small hotel and tourist attraction, but also renovated an old general store on the property into a farm-to-table themed fine restaurant. Among other things, they make their own cheeses at Narbona--in the style of buffalo mozzarella, brie, blue and parmesan--receiving a daily supply of milk from 100 cows.

I thought the line up was very good here, especially the delicious 2010 Tannat Roble, which is rich and savory and just begging to be paired with Uruguayan grass fed beef. The Pinot Noir is strong, complex and structured, and the Tannat rosé was also quite good, with intense and unusual herbal flavors.

Finca Narbona restaurant Finca Narbona restaurant

On my last evening in Montevideo, I made my way to a wine bar in the old town area called Corchos Wine Bistro and Boutique. There I was fortunate to meet Juan Vázquez, the proprietor of Corchos, who turns out to also be the co-author with Greg de Villiers of a new Guide to the Wineries and Wines of Uruguay, published by Grupo Planeta.

The guide is a slim 125 pages with text in both Spanish and English, but packed with useful maps and up-to-date info about what is offered for visitors at each of the wineries included.

I think it's a great sign of Uruguay's burgeoning wine culture not only that it has a new guide to visiting its wineries, for both Uruguayan and foreign tourists, but also that the ranks of would be fine wine producers are growing at such a fast pace.

For all tasting notes on the wines I sampled from these producers, as well as more details and pictures of each of these producers, see the full report on my blog here.