Uruguay, located in South-Eastern South America, has the challenging position of having several powerhouse wine countries as it's neighbours.
North and North-East lies the Brazilian state of Rio Grande Do Sul, which houses the two main wine regions of Brazil, Serra Gaucha and Campanha.
To the West lies Argentina, the largest producer of wine in South America and although it's wine regions do not lie on it's Eastern side, it remains the biggest competitor to the Uruguayan wine industry.
With such large and important wine producing countries next-door, it's no surprise that Uruguay's reputation as the 4th largest wine producing country in South America is basically unknown to the outside word.
Uruguay has recently, very quietly released high-quality, affordable wines out onto the world market, starting, confidently with it's very 'icon' wine : Tannat.
The Southern French variety was originally brought to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 19th Century, but it is not until the 1980's that these wines have found their way overseas in larger amounts.
As Uruguay's wine regions have never been formally grouped into larger zones, the 19 administrative zones for the country serve as the zones for the wine regions as well.
While there are vineyards in 15 of the 19 departments, the majority of the vineyards and wineries are situated in the hills to the North of the capital, Montevideo.
The four departments that are of most importance to Uruguayan wine are Canelones, Montevideo, Colonia and San José.
The Canelones department is easily the viticultural heart of Uruguay.
Lying directly North of the capital city Montevideo, this area, as with much of Uruguay, is often subject to high humidity levels throughout the year, which if coupled with high temperatures and rainfall would have made viticulture next to impossible here.
Luckily for wine lovers, Canelones enjoys some of the lowest temperatures and rainfall levels in the entire country, leading to a more moderate and extended growing season.
The topography of Canelones consists of flat and low-lying plains with most of the countryside lying between 25m and 50m above sea level.
The trio of wine towns in this department, Canelones, Juanico and Progreso are separated from each other by only a handful of miles, and while the largest areas under vine in Uruguay, they are tiny on an international scale. Yet despite this small size, the vineyard areas surrounding these small towns now have planted the greatest amount of Tannat to be found anywhere in the world. As of the last few years more Tannat grapes are planted here than are to be found even in it's traditional home region of Madiran in the South-West of France.
Speaking of plantings, the over 5,000ha of vineyards in Canelones dwarfs it's nearest competitor in Uruguay by over 4,000ha, firmly rooting Canelones as the premier viticultural region of Uruguay.
The capital department of Montevideo is directly South of Canelones and is home to the second largest amount of vineyards in Uruguay with over 1,000ha under vine.
The topography here is slightly different than Canelones with the relief rising very gently from sea level at the shoreline up to a maximum of about 75m (250ft) at the vineyards near the Canelones border (not more than 30km North of the city proper).
Montevideo's vineyards are also planted along the Atlantic coastline to the East of the capital and then join with the vineyards of Canelones creating a trend of coastal influenced vineyards, scattered for around 50km towards Maldonado.
Tannat of course is the most planted variety in Montevideo, with some of the most productive quality vineyards lying in this region.
As this relatively mild climate bears similarities to Bordeaux, most other varieties planted here are also French, (significant plantings include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and several others).
The region of Colonia is located to the West of Montevideo, following the shoreline of the Rio de la Plata, and now boasts over 500ha of vineyards planted.
This district is home to the second oldest city in Uruguay, Colonia del Sacramento, and due to it's close proximity to Buenos Aires, Colonia is the main entry point for tourists from Argentina, who can cross the Rio de la Plata by boat to reach these vineyards.
Many of these vineyards are located around the region of Carmelo, in the North-West of Colonia, very close to the border with Argentina and near the confluence of the many rivers that make the Rio de la Plata.
The Carmelo area is also home to the site of one of the first modern wine endeavours in Uruguay,'Narbona'.
While the modern 15ha vineyard was only planted in 1998, the farm it was built upon was originally founded by Juan de Narbona in 1909 as one of the first wineries in the country.
As with every region, the main variety in Colonia is Tannat, though there are also plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even several very small plantings of Pinot Noir and Viognier.
The region of San José is the fourth largest producer of wine in Uruguay with about 500ha under vine, and is located in between the departments of Colonia, to the West, and both Canelones and Montevideo to the East.
The river of Rio San José runs neatly through the the region flowing out into the Rio de la Plata, which allows plenty of cooling breezes to blow in from the Atlantic Ocean and along the path of the river to the vineyards.
The soils here consist of wavy, clay loam soils which are moderately fertile, and with water being plentiful due to many rivers and streams, vine vigour could be an issue.
Thankfully most vineyards in Uruguay are hand-managed, and with careful viticultural practices, the quality of grapes should be remain high with vigour under control.
Harvest here is undertaken in February, which is similar to others along the same line of latitude (33° South), such as parts of Australia and the Cape Winelands of South Africa.
The Rest of Uruguay
Now that we have gotten a handle on the main wine regions of Uruguay, we will give a few honourable mentions to the a few of the other smaller areas that produce great wine.
Maldonado is a coastal department of the country with a slightly hilly interior. This department is the location of the popular seaside city of Punta del Este which brings a lot of tourism business to the region and gives great potential for wine tourism growth.
The fifth largest vineyard area in Uruguay, Maldonado has over 250ha under vine, however, about 200ha of these vines were planted in 2007 by Bodega Garzón. This producer has planted a stunning undulating hill-scape of more than 1,000 individual vineyard parcels with more than 5,000 vines per hectare and spread out over about 10km.
The grapes harvested at this site from the 2015 vintage onwards, will be produced in a brand new, state of the art, gravity-fed winery, built on location, indicating huge faith in this region.
Located at the Western border of Uruguay and Argentina, Paysandú is a physically large department fed by the Rio Uruguay River, that separates the area from Argentina.
The soil is therefore very fertile and historically more suited to agriculture than viticulture. In recent years, the higher yields here have helped sustain small family vineyards in the domestic market.
These vineyards together still only have about 170ha under vine, but this is reported to be growing quickly.
Artigas is a sizeable department at the extreme North of Uruguay, which is the only department to border two countries, both Argentina and Brazil.
This area has the highest annual temperatures and highest annual rainfall levels of all of Uruguay, with wine being grown in small amounts on the alluvial plains to the West. Viticulture is being trialled in the East where there is a basaltic cuesta, sedimentary plains and undulating hill ranges, which could make for some interesting terrior for wine growth in the future.
Rivera is a small producer but is interesting for it's relationship with it's behemoth neighbour Brazil. The capital city of the department (also named Rivera) has shared city limits with Brazil, and inhabitants can go back and forth as they please, with customs and checkpoints located outside each city's limits.
This allows for a great duty-free economy within Rivera, driving the economy, tourism, and is useful for local wine producers looking to sell their products!
Rivera is also home to one of the two wineries of Bodegas Carrau, who have been one of the leading wine families in Uruguay since the late 1970's.
This family has built an underground facility here which produces innovative wines with the assistance of gravity, and have also built a cave and cellar system for optimal temperature control.
This sizeable investment is sure to secure the Rivera region's reputation as a quality wine region of Uruguay.
Uruguay's wine story continues..
While we have now understood a good amount about this unique wine growing country, most of the production of Uruguay is so small and so family-run that there is simply no way to sample the wines outside of the country and it is often very tough to even find information about the vineyards.
The main solution for this is to go to Uruguay and visit these vineyards and wineries in person.
This country is considered to have some of the highest standards of living in the world, with an educated, safe and environmentally sparkling reputation.
Access is easy from Buenos Aires in Argentina or Porto Alegre in Brazil, and there are several great wine tour guides based in Montevideo who speak all languages.
If you can manage to get your hands on a bottle of good Tannat, please enjoy and if you are interested in any other wine regions and have a suggestion, please contact me.