Some weeks ago, I wrote about the Wine of Uruguay Tannat tasting event in San Francisco, at which I met Leslie Fellows, a California resident who owns the Artesana Winery on the outskirts of Montevideo. After the event, and finding some of Artesana’s wines at my favorite supermarket, I approached her about an email interview, in which she graciously provided some insights on Uruguayan wine and her own project there. The answers follow.
WB: What is your background in wine? Did you grow up in California?
LF: I grew up in California and after working in the arts for many years, finally decided to follow my true passion, wine. I took two years of courses at Cabrillo and UC Davis and became a Certified Specialist of Wine and Sommelier Level 1. As a winery owner and member of the Wines of Uruguay Association, I advocate for and promote Uruguayan wines. I currently live in Santa Cruz, California and spend about two months a year in Uruguay.
WB: How did you end up in Uruguay? How do you compare it with Argentina and Chile, which have a much higher profile?
LF: My uncle started traveling in Uruguay for business in 2003 and fell in love with the country. He bought a home in the countryside with the idea of having a small vineyard to support the property. At that time the US dollar was strong so it was a good time to invest. The vineyard started as a few acres in the backyard and became a larger project after meeting two local winemakers who introduced him to Tannat and the distinctive terroir of Uruguay. In 2006, in collaboration with these winemakers, Analia Lazaneo and Valentina Gatti, we began developing Artesana, the first American-owned winery in Uruguay.
Uruguay is an extraordinary country, known for its economic stability and democratic, socially liberal policies, gorgeous countryside and beaches, and now recognized for its many outstanding and diverse wines. Differing from Argentina and Chile, Uruguay is a country of small-scale, family-owned wineries with a European winemaking tradition dating back to the 18th century when the Spanish brought vines to the region. There are 270 wineries in Uruguay producing approximately 10 million cases from 22,000 acres of vines. As a comparison, Chile’s Concha y Toro winery produces more wine than all of Uruguay. Uruguay does not have the production capacity to compete on price point with Argentina and Chile, so we have to do it by focusing on quality. Small producers will become more recognized as bigger producers with international wine consultants like Michel Rolland, Alberto Antonini and Paul Hobbs help put Uruguay on the map.
Additionally, Uruguay has the cleanest water on the continent and one of the purest environments in the world, ranking third after Norway and Finland in the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) in 2005.
WB: Tannat is Uruguay’s signature wine, but you have cultivated Zinfandel, which I have never seen in South America. Were there any special challenges in a climate and terroir that’s so different from California? What other varietals do you produce?
LF: Tannat is indeed the signature varietal of Uruguay, originating from the Madiran region of southwestern France. Tannat is a well-structured grape with an exotic spicy character. Named for high tannin content, Tannat [photograph courtesy of Leslie Fellows] has been found to be the healthiest of red wines in several studies due to its high antioxidant and resveratrol levels. My colleague, Dr. Francisco Carrau of Bodegas Carrau, recently sequenced the Tannat genome (only the second grape after Pinot Noir to be sequenced), once again proving this.
Our winery, Artesana, is located 30 miles north of Uruguay’s seaside capital Montevideo, in the acclaimed Canelones region, which is home to the majority of the country’s vineyards. The coastal Atlantic climate produces growing conditions similar to France’s Bordeaux region. Twenty acres of our 80-acre estate are planted to Tannat, Merlot and Zinfandel, the only Zin to be planted and produced in Uruguay. As Californians, we wanted to bring Tannat to California, and Zinfandel to Uruguay. Tannat grows beautifully in Uruguay, but the humidity is difficult on the Zin, so each vintage is unique. In great years like 2011 we made 60 cases of a Zinfandel Reserve (18 months in French oak), that’s received excellent reviews. It has a classic Zin profile, yet is much more earth-driven than most California Zinfandels. In 2012, a more difficult vintage, we made an unoaked Zin that is an easy-drinking fresh and fruity style. Because we produce so little Zinfandel, we sell it only in the domestic market.
WB: Do you plan to add any other varietals, specifically whites? Will you acquire any more acreage?
LF: We specialize in terroir-driven, single vineyard Tannat and Tannat blends. This year we are grafting one 2.5-acre parcel of Merlot to Cabernet Franc, which will give us more blending options. We are focused exclusively on reds, however there are some excellent white wines produced in Uruguay including Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, Viognier and Petit Manseng.
WB: What size is the operation? Its very name suggests a modest size, but what acreage do you have in Uruguay? Are those vineyards dispersed, or concentrated? Do you depend on your own vineyards exclusively, or do you purchase grapes as well?
LF: We are a small, ultra-premium estate winery, meaning we only use fruit from our 20-acre vineyard for our wines and everything is done is small lots with minimal intervention using only the very best equipment and barrels. The vineyard is entirely hand-farmed to produced low yield highly concentrated fruit. We practice sustainable, IPM (Integrated Pest Management), low-input, dry farming to maintain the long-term health of the land. Lots from the thirteen various Tannat, Merlot and Zinfandel blocks are fermented separately using gentle handling techniques in small stainless steel temperature-controlled tanks, allowing the character of the fruit to be expressed. Twenty-day cool maceration regimes provide excellent aroma and favor extraction. Barrel aging is done in French and American oak for 12 to 24 months to carefully accentuate the flavors of the wines, which are then custom blended and bottled without fining or filtration.
WB: What is your annual production? What percentage of that production is exported? How easy are Artesana wines to find in California and elsewhere in the US?
LF: We have a future capacity of 4,000 cases and are currently producing about 2,000 cases, so we are halfway there. About 30 percent is exported to the US, but we hope to increase this percentage in the next few years. Our Tannat wines are sold in shops and restaurants throughout California by our importer/distributor Epic Wines. The wines can also be found in stores throughout Pennsylvania and we are starting to sell in Washington and Oregon. We hope to have our wines available in small quantity throughout the US and Canada in the future. Please inquire with your local wine merchant about bringing the wine in for you.
WB: In Chile’s Colchagua valley, eight French women have opened Viña Las Niñas in the Apalta district, and I notice your winemakers are women. Is this a feminist project?
LF: The name of the winery, Artesana, inspired by our female winemakers, is a feminized derivation of the Spanish word for artisan or handcrafted, synonymous with fine wine. The two winemakers and I run the company and we are proud to be all women. We work very hard and are passionate about the wines we are producing.
WB: Is Artesana open for tours and tasting? If so, what do they include? How easy is access from Montevideo?
LF: Artesana is open to the public and is a member of Los Caminos del Vino, a wine trail of 15 member wineries. We offer guided tours with our winemakers, tastings and catered lunches. We are 30 minutes’ drive from Montevideo in the beautiful Las Brujas area of Canelones and easily accessible.
WB: Is there anything else that I’ve overlooked that deserves mention?
LF: Try a Tannat or any wine from Uruguay if you see one. These wines are getting on the radar in the US and beyond, and deservedly so. Tannat wines can be big and bold, yet elegant and complex and pair beautifully with strong cheeses, charcuterie, pasta dishes, and roasted and grilled meats including sausage, beef and lamb.