Lately, the Vinedo los Vientos Alcyone, a luscious, chocolatey-caramely dessert wine, has been stalking me. It was recommended recently at a retail store, and I’ve noticed it (or other dry Uruguay wines – I also had a nice white wine recently) on several wine lists.
So it seems that Uruguay wines are having a moment – one that the country’s winemakers want to sustain. But, like any “overnight” success, there is more to the story.
“Uruguay is a country with a big tradition of wine,” says Juan Andres Marichal, Vice President of Inavi/Vinos del Uruguay, a trade association of the country’s winemakers.
The country’s wine immigrants starting arriving around 1870, primarily from Italy and Spain. Looking at this history, Juan notes that these people enjoyed “a good culture of wine consumption” and, indeed, many of them planted vines and began crafting their own wines.
In the manner of a country with small, family wineries, production stayed largely within the country, enjoyed by locals and tourists. But that’s changing. “Over the past ten years, little by little there’s been more promotion outside the country,” Juan says.
He understates it a bit: in the last five years, according to Wines of Uruguay. Exports have increased five-fold to 3.2 million liters a year – 845,350 gallons. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that California alone made 605,619,613 gallons of wine in 2011.
It’s a change Daniel Pisano can appreciate. Pisano Family Wines – Daniel and his two brothers own the business, which was started by their grandfather in 1914 – today exports their wine to 46 countries on five continents, including Antartica.
He suggests that the country’s unique terroir helps account for this success.
Uruguay sits between the 30th and 35th parallel, about the same as Australia, Argentina and South Africa. As with the other countries, this offers grapes lots of sunshine and warmth. But as Pisano notes, “Uruguay is the only country in South America producing wines on the Atlantic Ocean. We get Antarctic winds [that cause] cooler temperatures to keep the [grape’s] acidity. The wines are bright and fresh.”
In addition, the region’s calcerous and chalk soils are similar to those of Bordeaux, giving the South American wines their darker color and heavier feel. As a result of these disparate influences, “the style is halfway between new world and old world,” Pisano says of the wine.
This unique flavor profile also deserves some credit.
Michael Metzger, wine director for Vic & Anthony’s in New York City, notes that the wines, crafted from the red Tannat grape, “are softer and more approachable” than a heavier wine like Malbec. In addition, “people are curious and want value,” which these wines often provide.
“Because so few Uruguay wines are coming to the US, you can, for $8 to $10, get a good, rich, hearty Tannat that you can drink young,” Metzger explains.
In addition, he says, because most of Uruguay’s wine production is from smaller, family-run estates, “you get a wine that’s made with a lot of great care.”
Another winemaker taking advantage of these characteristics is Pablo Fallabrino, owner and chief winemaker at Vinedo de los Vientos.
His grandfather moved from Piedmont to Uruguay in 1920, recreating the family wine business with great success. By the 1950s, Fallabrino was the country’s largest winery.
As part of an inheritance, Pablo received the Vinedo de los Vientos vineyard, located on Uruguay’s coastal region. The property has been in the family’s hands since 1947. Pablo imported equipment from Italy and established the first winery on the property in 1998. (The name translates to Winery of the Winds, appropriate for its location!)
He produces five different wines from Tannat, including one for everyday drinking, one with age (three years in French oak barrels), a Ripasso, crafted Amarone-style, and the Alcyone and Alcyone Reserve, both dessert wines.
Here’s where family history comes in: to make the Alcyone wines, Pablo incorporates old Italian winemaking techniques gleaned from an old book of winemaking notes and recipes written by his father.
“I combine different parts and experiment,” Pablo says. “For the Alcyone, I use Marsala techniques, fortifying the wine with brandy. The reserve is fortified with grappa.” He also uses herbal infusions, a la gin, in the Alcyone.
That certainly explains the wine’s heady richness and layered flavor! But dessert or dry, these are clearly wines worth seeking out. As Michael Metzger says: “I hope we see more!”
If the export growth trend continues, he won’t be disappointed!