Uruguay takes the coastal path
Patricio Tapia is a regular Decanter contributor and the author of the annual Descorchados guide to the wines of South America
The influence of the nearby South Atlantic brings a different accent to the wines of the small but emerging region of Maldonado. Patricio Tapia highlights three top producers and five great wines.
JUAN BOUZA, The owner of Bodega Bouza in Uruguay, is a calm, softly spoken guy with kind manners. however, at the wheel of his small all-terrain jeep, with the sea breezes blowing in his hair, he seems to transform. We drive up and down the near-vertical paths in his vineyards at the foot of the Pan de Azúcar hill. Bouza is going full speed – I don’t quite fear for my life, but we’re certainly going fast.
Bouza planted Pan de Azúcar in 2010. Aware that he could obtain something special from this site, located 88km east of the capital Montevideo, he decided to plant some 7ha with Riesling and Merlot, grapes that could adapt to cooler conditions. ‘The vineyard is about 4km from the sea,’ says Bouza. ‘There is a gentle wind that comes from the Atlantic, which starts to blow after noon and moderates the temperatures noticeably.’
In addition to these marine breezes, there are unique soil conditions here. The Bouza vineyards further inland, in uruguay’s main viticultural area of Canelones, are planted in heavier and less permeable soils. At the foot of
the Pan de Azúcar, these clays are transformed into decomposed rocks of great permeability, a crucial factor in rainy uruguay. ‘The first wines we have produced have shown that we can obtain fresher flavours and a little less alcohol, which is something we’ve been trying to achieve for a while now,’ Bouza adds.
The Bodega Bouza style has previously been characterised by ripeness and extraction, but the Pan de Azúcar Merlot 2016 takes another direction. The sea breezes help produce flavours of red fruits, with delicate tannins and crunchy acidity. The Pan de Azúcar Riesling 2016 shows a similar freshness, this time with mineral touches, creating one of the best whites in uruguay today.
Although Bouza is a pioneer in this area, the Bay of Maldonado (where Pan de Azúcar is located) has been the subject of research since 2006, when Bodega Familia Deicas planted in the region of Garzón. ‘Since 2000, we have been looking for areas closer to the sea,’
recalls Santiago Deicas, head of oenology at the winery. ‘We saw that in those soils and with that coastal influence, Tannat could produce different flavours.’
he believes that granite soils can give sharper, more direct and vertical wines and that the influence of the sea – some 20km away – gives fresher fruit notes. ‘But we were also interested in the slopes of the terrain, sometimes up to 25% degrees of inclination, which give us different orientations to play with,’ adds Deicas.
The family planted 16ha of predominantly Tannat, a selection of fruit from which goes into the Valle de los Manantiales Tannat 2016. Compared with examples from the more compact clays and limestone soils of the winery’s Canelones vineyards further west, this wine feels much fruitier and, above all, finer, fresher and more delineated.
Also taking advantage of these undulations in the terrain and the different sun exposures, Bodega Garzón began to plant its impressive Garzón vineyard, some 18km from the sea, a decade ago. It is a massive project of 220ha, financed by the Argentine oil magnate Alejandro Bulgheroni. From a distance, you can see this sea of vineyards, divided into 220 small plots with an average size of 0.2ha.
A total of 12 different grape varieties have been planted, with Tannat playing an important role, as well as Albariño, of which there are 35ha. ‘Apart from the cold influence of the sea, it is important to bear in mind that these granite soils are less fertile than those of Canelones clays, therefore the flavours feel more concentrated,’ says Bodega Garzón’s consultant, Italian Alberto Antonini.
For its Single Vineyard Albariño 2017, Garzón has selected the vineyard closest to the sea, about 15km away. It consists of three plots totalling a single hectare, all facing the Atlantic. This white is radiant and mineral, full of white fruits, and with a creamy texture – a wine that’s difficult to stop drinking.
These coastal wines are evidence of the potential of the Maldonado region. Compared with 4,207ha in Canelones (64% of uruguay’s total), vineyard plantings in Maldonado currently only run to 332ha, or 5% of the total. This is likely to increase.
Uruguay’s viticulture, with its humid climate and the strong influence of the mighty Río de la Plata, offers completely different flavours from those that can be obtained in other, warmer areas of South America, such as large parts of Argentina or Chile. To that picture, we must now add the Atlantic influence and a whole new collection of delicious and refreshing wines.