For years, Argentina and Chile dominated the South American wine scene—both on the shelf and via vineyard tourism. But now, a buzzy grape called tannat is helping tiny Uruguay become a big thing in the oenophile world.
A decade ago, Sophie Le Baux moved from Europe to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, to open Baco, a South American vinoteca. But when she tried Uruguay’s national tipple, tannat, she was horrified. “I thought, ‘Ugh, this is so hard to drink. How can I open a wine restaurant here?’”
She wasn’t the only person who didn’t like the rustic red wine. “The locals didn’t believe in quality,” says Santiago Deicas of the celebrated Familia Deicas winery. “And Uruguayans were drinking a lot of wine, so there was no need to make it high end [for export].”
Now, tannat is winning international prizes, Uruguayan winemakers are landing on best-in-class lists, and there’s a new tourist route, the Mapa del Vino, which plots out 95 percent of Uruguay’s boutique wineries. Since the country is small, you can use it to design a weeklong road trip full of history, scenery, and, of course, wine.
How tannat is putting Uruguay on the map
Like tannat, Uruguay has remained under the radar for travelers. Dwarfed by neighboring Brazil and Argentina, the country (roughly the size of England) hasn’t attracted many tourists. Tannat—which originated in southwest France—was also overlooked, known best as a blending grape in the European countries and U.S. states that grew it. Uruguay is the first place to successfully turn it into a single varietal wine.
Tannat became Uruguay’s national grape because it thrives in the changeable, often wet coastal climate. “It stays healthy in rainy years, and it’s a perfect match with asado [barbecue],” says Deicas.
It didn’t taste good, initially. But quantity doesn’t equal quality. The grape grows in overpacked bunches that are prone to mold and slow to ripen. The high tannin levels that give the grape its name can make a fearsomely astringent, bitter quaff.
“There’s a reason most countries don’t have tannat [as a single varietal],” says Mariela Zubizarreta, whose family has been growing it for four generations at Bodega Zubizarreta in Carmelo. Elsewhere, tannat is blended with more palatable grapes. In Uruguay, it stood alone.
Uruguay’s spiky tannats used to raise eyebrows. But today, younger winemakers are transforming it from coarse to mellow, resulting in an earthy, fruity red. Some remove the tannin-heavy seeds after maceration; others let grapes over- or under-ripen.
The rise of tannat, says Soledad Bassini, co-creator of the Mapa del Vino, has “put Uruguay on the map in the wine world.” Bassini owns Solera, a wine bar in the beach town of Jose Ignacio. “So many tourists were asking [which wineries to visit]—I used to draw maps on napkins,” she says. “I realized we needed something official.”
Take the wine trail through history
On a short, cross-country drive from the Rio de la Plata (which separates Uruguay from Argentina) to the coastal border with Brazil, you’ll pass centuries-old towns, lively Montevideo, and dreamy Atlantic beaches—with wine tastings and vineyard stays en route. Most vineyards are in the provinces of Colonia, Canelones, and Maldonado.
Start in the town of Carmelo in Colonia, where European immigrants like the Zubizarretas settled in the 19th century. After sampling wine over lunch at Bodega Zubizarreta, explore the area’s long wine history, from a ruined church founded by Jesuits who planted vines in the 18th century to tiny downtown Carmelo, with its Art Deco center. The town drew Italian and Basque immigrants in the early 20th century who planted vines outside their houses–just like back home.
Carmelo has eight family-owned vineyards, all open for tastings, most within bicycling distance of each other. It’s a sleepy place where asphalt gives way to red-earth tracks, farmers clack past on horse-drawn carts, and the Plata gleams under fierce orange sunsets.
Sleep in rooms overlooking the grapes at El Legado winery, or try empanadas with sips of tannat or albariño at El Quincho, Carmelo’s newest vineyard with its outdoor restaurant. “Tannat means everything to me,” says owner Adrián Conde, who’s experimenting with the grape, aging it in terracotta amphorae for an earthy taste. “Uruguay is a nation of immigrants, and they brought wine culture with them. And Uruguayans tamed tannat.”
The historic wine center
One of the first wineries to master tannat was Familia Deicas in Canelones province, 150 miles southwest of Carmelo and about 40 minutes north of Montevideo. Canelones was Uruguay’s first wine region. European immigrants fanned out from the capital, planting as they went. Today Montevideo is surrounded by long-established vineyards.
In the 1980s, the Deicas family realized that Canelones’s clay-rich soil was similar to that in parts of Bordeaux, which meant it could potentially produce high-quality wines. Now, they grow 15 varietals, from Bordeaux cabernets to tannat and Uruguay’s newest fad, albariño. Tastings take place at headquarters or on a patio shaded by eucalyptus trees and, during the fall harvest, framed by pink macachin flowers.
Stay in Montevideo and you can make easy wine day trips to other Canelones vineyards. Near Famila Deicas, family-run Pisano sells wines, including sparkling tannat, from an onsite boutique. On the other side of the city, Bodega Bouza runs shuttles from Montevideo to its vineyard, 20 minutes northwest, for tours, tastings, and lunches at its restaurant, which specializes in Uruguay’s world-class beef.
On the eastern border of Canelones, Bracco Bosca is a fifth-generation vineyard with two modernist wood cabins amid the vines. Owner Fabiana Bracco Bosca can, on request, prepare a traditional Uruguayan asado and send you back to your cabin to watch shooting stars while you sample her refreshing claret.
Glitzy coastal wineries
The tony coastal region of Maldonado is a fitting end to a Mapa del Vino road trip. In addition to the ritzy beach resorts of Punta del Este and Jose Ignacio, the area also offers a range of wine experiences.
Visitors can have tastings of wine and picadas (gourmet finger food) on a mountainous granite bluff at Alto de la Ballena. Or take an e-bike to picnic among the 617 acres of vines at Bodega Garzon, owned by Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentinian billionaire who also has vineyards in Argentina, Tuscany, and California.
Other wine country lodgings include boho-luxe LUZ Culinary Wine Lodge, near Jose Ignacio, and high-design cabins among the vines at Sacromonte—a wine resort wedged deep into the rocky north Maldonado hills.
“We’re not just new in the wine world, we’re also small,” says map creator Bassini. “We can’t produce huge amounts of wine, and we can’t compete on price with Argentina or Chile. But tannat is our gateway—it’s unusual, but full of personality.”
Sort of like Uruguay itself.