The culture of wine in Uruguay

The wine is part of the culture in this country; probably it is a heritage of the immigration waves that occurred at the beginning of the twenty century, mainly from Italy, Spain and France. Uruguayans like to sit, taste and share the wine with their family and friends. The red wine here has another different meaning than in the U.S. and other countries. It is not seen as an alcoholic drink to get drunk, but as a drink to share in special occasions. It is part of the way of life in Uruguay.

The most common varieties of grape in Uruguay are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat and all of them came originally from Europe. There were not vines in South America before the Spanish colonization.
For much of the twenty century, Uruguay followed a mass production of rough table wines using hybrid grapes that gave high yields per hectare. At that time, the Uruguayan wines were not recognized in the world by its quality. In the 1970’s the wine industry started a process of conversion toward producing better and more expensive wines. Several Uruguayan wineries hired consultants from France and California to transform its wine production and started planting more hectares with more appreciated gape’s varieties, such as Cabernet and Tannat. In 1988, the government established the National Institute of Winemaking, which is a public institution that works to improve the industry, for example researching about the different type of soils and humidity needed by the different varieties of grapes.

In 1991, Californian experts hired by the government recommended that Uruguay should focus in producing only Tannat. By the type of soil, heat and humidity this is the most suitable vine to grow up in Uruguay. In the last 30 years, the area planted with vines shrunk from 120,000 hectares to 8,500, but the wines produced today are by far better wines than in the past.

The Tannat is a variety of grape that was brought from France in 1870; but, it would become popular a century later. Tannat is known for its very high tannin levels and it can taste a little dry and bitter, compared with other grapes. For instance, in France, winemakers usually blend it with other type of grapes to make it a more agreeable taste. Actually, in other countries it is uncommon to find a bottle of wine made 100 per cent of Tannat. Nonetheless, Uruguay produces wines made 100% of Tannat and their quality is excellent.

Nowadays, Uruguay is trying to distinguish itself in the world market of wine by producing best quality wines; but, only in small quantities. Top Uruguayan wines have been winning medals at different international contests in the last years. These wines are expensive and cost on average $50 dollars per bottle. There are up to 280 wineries in Uruguay, and most of them are small, family run and are considered as “boutique wineries”. Uruguay produces on average 95 million of liters of wine per year; they consume 85 million internally and they export the other 10 million. Uruguay consumes 90% of the wine that produces (each person on average consumes 34 bottles per year). Most of the 10 million of litters that Uruguay exports are top wines. The main market for the Uruguayan wine is Brazil, and in lesser degree U.S. and Canada.

It is very hard to find wines from Uruguay abroad. Being in Uruguay has been a great opportunity to taste probably the best Tannats in the world. Well, on last Sunday, I decided to visit a “Boutique Winery” called Bodegas Bouza. The winery is only 25 minutes from Montevideo in the north direction.

Bodegas Bouza has an extension of 30 hectares. Each year, they keep only the best 30 per cent of the crop to produce wine with those selected grapes; they waste the rest. The different varieties of grapes found in Bouza are Albariño, Chardonay, Tannat, Cabernet, Tempranillo and Merlot. The best wines are a 100 per cent Tannat and a blend of Tannat, Cabernet and Merlot. Likewise, Bouza uses the best standards of quality for their wines: they age the wine in barrels of French and American oak; and they use the barrels for only three years. As well, Bouza divides the yield land into a grid of squares of half hectare each one. In this way, they can identify each grape of which soil comes from. Thus, they never mix grapes of different parcels, in order to guarantee that all the bottles from the same parcel have the same quality. They use the best parcels to produce the top wines.
Bodegas Bouza is a family own winery of recent creation. The Bouza family bought the winery to the Pesquera family in 2001. They have invested money, time and work planting more hectares, hiring experts, and improving the installations. Today, Bodegas Bouza is producing remarkable wines and it is a nice place to visit.
-Roberto

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