THE BLOG

Uruguay Part I: Small Country Makes Big, Flavorful Wines

06/19/2013 11:39 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

portion of the Pisano vineyards in Progreso area of Canelones portion of the Pisano vineyards in Progreso area of Canelones

Background

I have been a fan of the small South American country of Uruguay, located on the Atlantic coast below Brazil and east of Argentina, ever since I spent many weeks there in the mid-80s. That's when I took a sabbatical from law practice to live and travel in South America for a year.

I rented an apartment in Buenos Aires in 1986 and traveled all around Argentina and South America from there. I kept coming back to Uruguay, though, where the people are welcoming and relaxed, the food is delicious, and the beaches are clean and safe.

Back then, although I loved the food there, Uruguayan wines were, for the most part, plonk. Sold mostly in five-liter demijohns in stores and known as rosé or clarete--the vast majority of wine produced in the country was based on high yielding hybrids. The wines were therefore thin and poor. The best wines in South America then were from Chile, with Argentina also starting to make some good things. You'd have to pay a lot more for Chilean wines, but it was well worth it.

Things began to change for the better for Uruguayan wine production after I left South America in 1987. The formation of Mercosur--the South American Free Trade Zone--at the end of the '80s meant Uruguayan producers were going to have to become more competitive in their own market against Chilean and Argentine imports.

With government subsidies for pulling up hybrids, a lot of the high yielding stuff was taken out and vitis vinifera, the type of grapes required for fine wine, planted in its place.

British critics who visited Uruguay in the past few years have reported some very good wines being made there now. I had been following these reports with interest, so was delighted to receive an invite early this year to visit there from Wines of Uruguay, the organization comprised of about 20 of the major producers that leads those wineries' combined efforts to expand wine exports.

Tannat

Francisco Carrau with experimental Tannat vines Francisco Carrau with experimental Tannat vines

The grape that has garnered the most attention in Uruguay, becoming the country's signature grape the way Malbec is for Argentina, is Tannat. This red grape with its high concentrations of tannins and anthocyanins originated in southwest France. It was brought to Uruguay in 1874 from Argentina by Pascal Harriague, a Basque born immigrant.

Thanks to the humid conditions, long growing season and clay loam or sandy red soils in much of Uruguay, Tannat gets fully ripe there to an extent it often doesn't in southwest France. Producers have also worked with consultants on vineyard and winemaking techniques, including micro-oxygenation and barrel aging, aimed at softening Tannat's big tannins so that the Uruguayan version tends to be drinkable much earlier than its French counterpart.

Tannat can be quite complex on the palate, showing black fruit flavors, like blackberry and black currant. Depending on the oak treatment, the wines can show also chocolate or espresso flavors. I find the best examples to be rich, with lots of structure and complexity. There is often a savory quality to these wines, too, especially with some bottle age. About one-quarter of the vineyard area in Uruguay is now planted to Tannat.

I spent a total of eight days in Uruguay, visiting as many as four producers a day. There are some exciting new producers and new regions here, which will be the focus of my next report. In this installment, the focus is on the very best of the longtime producers we visited--those who have been part of the transformation from low to very high quality wines. Those included Carrau, Juanicó , Marichal and the producer that, for me, is making the very best wines in Uruguay at this point, Pisano.

Dinner with the Pisanos (photo by Gustavo Pisano) Dinner with the Pisanos (photo by Gustavo Pisano)

The wines here--a wide ranging collection --are an incredible value given their richness, depth and complexity.

The three Pisano brothers who work together to produce these remarkable wines are Daniel, Eduardo and Gustavo. They are descended from Italians who made wine in the region of Liguria. They date the family's history in Uruguay to Francesco Pisano's arrival in 1870. Cesare Secundino Pisano settled in Canelones near the town of Progreso in 1914 and planted the family's first vineyards there in 1916. He produced his first wine in 1924.

Daniel explained that their grandfather, who only finished third grade, taught them to "make a little wine, good wine, and sell it for a lot." The brothers have followed this advice, gradually increasing their winemaking volume by three times while multiplying their income 20-fold, according to Daniel.

outstanding Pisano wines outstanding Pisano wines

Daniel and his brothers -- Gustavo, who oversees the winemaking, and Eduardo, who is more involved with the viticulture -- tasted us through 17 wines. My scores ranged from a low of 90+ for the Pinot-based Brut Nature sparkling wine, and 91+ points for an inexpensive but delicious Pinot Noir, up to 96 points for their remarkably complex Tannat blend, first created in 2000 in honor of their mother and her Basque heritage, the 2006 ArretXea Grand Reserve. I scored most of their wines from 93 to 95 points.

Many of these great wines are available online in the U.S. through TotalWine & More. That includes the delicious Tannat RPF and Cabernet Sauvignon RPF bottlings I rated 93+ and 93 points respectively that are priced at only $19. That also includes the wonderful Licor de Tannat EtXeOneko, a fabulously complex and powerful port-style wine, half bottles of which are priced at only $40 (95+ points).

The Pisanos have proven, beyond a doubt, that truly exceptional wines that would be impressive from any region can be made in Uruguay. And at their current pricing, they definitely over deliver. I look forward to following this family's efforts for many years to come.

For my complete report on all the longtime producers we visited along with my tasting notes on their wines from see my blog here.