Heard on the grapevine: Uruguay is wine world's rising star

Sunday 21 March 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Argentina has its Malbec.

Chile has its Carmenere. Now Uruguay, not to be out-muscled by its more famous wine-producing neighbors, is taking the world of viticulture by storm, with its distinctive Tannat wines.

Uruguay, the fourth most important wine-producing country in South America, grows a variety of grapes, but none more celebrated than Tannat, which is fueling this tiny country's rise to prominence in the wine world.

Over the years Tannat has come to be seen as the quintessential Uruguayan grape and wine, representing about 40 percent of the country's entire wine production.

Now bold and full-bodied Tannat wines are putting upstart Uruguay on the map, and winning prizes against competition fronted by more established regional rivals.

"Tannat is opening doors for us," winegrower Virginia Stagnari proudly told AFP. Her Italian immigrant family founded the Antigua Bodega Stagnari, some 20 kilometers north of Montevideo, one of this countries leading vineyards.

Although Uruguay's wines are just beginning to gain a global foothold, it has a long history of viticulture, dating back some 250 years when French and Spanish immigrants brought the vine to the New World.

The hardy Tannat grape, originally from southeastern France, was introduced to Uruguay in 1870 by the Basque Frenchman Pascual Harriague, an immigrant who was looking for a varietal that would thrive in Uruguay's soil and climate.

Since the 1990s, Uruguay has been exporting high-quality wine throughout Latin America, the United States and even in the countries of the Gulf.

This tiny country of some 3.4 million inhabitants, dwarfed by its larger neighbors Brazil and Argentina, now enjoys a growing reputation as a producer of superlative wines for a reasonable price.

Some 8,200 hectares of vineyards have been cultivated by some 1,800 wine producers.

Stagnari said her family's vineyard was established in 1929 by her maternal grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, and today produces 140,000 liters of various types of wine, exporting every fifth bottle out of the country to destinations like Brazil, Mexico, Belgium and Sweden.

Another highly regarded label here, Bouza, although barely a decade old, produces what are generally deemed to be some of this country's most exquisite wines including not only Tannats but varietals as Albarino, Chardonnay and Merlot.

To obtain top quality wines "we have to expend a lot of man-hours," said the company's resident eonologist, Eduard Boido.

The quest for memorable wines also means "maintaining the biodiversity of the vineyard," Boido said, as well as cultivating the grapes "in parcels of land no larger than a half-hectare in size."

Small scale viticulture allows for quality control and ensures the "traceability" of each bottle - something that Uruguay's industry overseers INAVI, the national institute of wine culture, insists upon.

According to INAVI Uruguay exported 1.2 liters of wine in 2004, with a value of some 3.3 million dollars. In 2008, it sold 13.4 million liters valued at 10.6 million dollars.

But viniculture in Uruguay was dealt a major setback by the global financial crisis. In 2009, it succeeded in selling only two million liters, worth about six million dollars.

Uruguay expects to make up lost ground quickly now that the economic recovery is underway, especially given its position as a purveyor as one of the best values to be had in any wine store.

But even the most avid oenophiles agree that Uruguay's wine industry will rise and fall on the quality of each individual bottle of ruby red Tannat.

And they say downing a glass as much of an art form as producing one.

First uncork a bottle pour it into a glass and allow it to sit for a half-hour.

Then swirl it in a slow, circular motion. Next, close your eyes, inhale deeply into the wine glass.

Finally they say, sip the Tannat, holding the contents in your mouth a few second before swallowing, in order to fully savor the full bouquet of Uruguay's most treasured export.

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