Uruguay is the fourth-largest wine-producing country in South America. Wine grapes have been grown here for over 250 years, although commercial viniculture did not begin until the second half of the 19th century, two centuries or so after Chile and Argentina. In the past few decades Uruguayan wine has emerged quietly and steadily onto the world wine market, not as dramatically as that of its larger neighbors, but with promising poise and confidence.
No summary of Uruguayan wine is complete without mention of Tannat, the robust, tannic red that has played such a pivotal role in the country's rising wine status. Just as Chile has its Carmenere and Argentina its Malbec, so Tannat has risen to become Uruguay's 'icon' grape. The first Tannat vines to arrive here were shipped across the Atlantic by 19th-century settlers from the Basque country (the autonomous communities between southern France and northern Spain). Don Pascual Harriague is the man typically given credit for Tannat's dissemination around Uruguay; for a long time the name Harriague was used as a synonym for the variety.
The family line of those original Tannat vines has remained largely unaltered, a genetic snapshot of rustic southern French wine from that era. Modern Tannat clones brought in from present-day French vineyards have proved quite distinct, offering more powerful (if more structurally simple) wines with higher alcohol and lower acidity. It is ironic that this New World style should emerge from a decidedly Old World wine country, and that one of the world's 'newest' wine countries should produce such Old World-style wines.
Tannat in all forms has proved well suited to the South American climate – demonstrably better, in fact, than that at the heart of south-west France, the Madiran vineyards of which might be viewed as the variety's spiritual home. As viticultural and winemaking techniques continue to progress in Uruguay, the ability to capitalize on this synergy will only increase, likely confirming Uruguay's status as a reliable source of world-class red wine.
The Vitis vinifera vine species is not native to the Americas, and those species that are native (Vitis labrusca, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis aestivalis, Vitis berlandieri, Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia) proved less suitable for winemaking than their European Vitis vinifera cousins. It is no surprise, then, that the wine grape varieties used in newly developing wine nations (of which Uruguay is a prime example) are those well-known Vitis vinifera vines that have proved commercially successful around the world. Thus Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc head up the 'dry red wines other than Tannat' category, while their light-skinned equivalents Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are behind most of Uruguay's modern-style dry whites. Aromatic Viognier is also increasingly popular among Uruguayan vignerons, as it is in Chile, Argentina and many other parts of the world, notably California, eastern Australia and New Zealand.
Underpinning the development of Uruguay's quality wine production is a significant quantity of bulk rose wine, made mostly from Black Muscat (Muscat Hamburg). Behemoth Brazil, immediately to the north, has traditionally been a key export focus for Uruguayan wines, although as the quality improves, doors are opening all over the world market.
The majority of Uruguayan wine is made from vineyards in the south of the country, in the Canelones, Montevideo and San Jose departments. There are small patches of viticultural activity all around the western periphery, along the border with the Entre Rios province of eastern Argentina. There is even one notable outcrop in the northern Riviera department, at Cerro Chapeau, just across the Paraguay-Brazil border from Brazil's Campanha wine region. The distance north to the next Brazilian wine region beyond Campanha (Serra Gaucha) is some 275 miles (445km), roughly equivalent to Uruguay's entire width; the differences in scale between Brazil and Uruguay are hard to overstate.