Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Whining

In the course of writing my guidebooks to Chile and Argentina, I've often visited wineries, but it's never been quite the endurance test it was last Friday on the outskirts of Montevideo. From 8: 30 in the morning until nearly 9 p.m. I was either en route to or at a winery, tasting upwards of 20 different wines, sampling platters of cold cuts and cheeses, or ingesting a tasty asado of grilled Uruguayan meats and vegetables.

The morning started with a tasting at Varela Zarranz, about 30 km north of Montevideo, where the historic winery once belonged to the politically influential Diego Pons. Pons hosted presidents and other prominent politicians in the Italianate house now occupied by owner Ricardo Varela (Varela's grandfather bought the winery following Pons's death).

At that time, the winery produced mostly jug wines under the brand name Vudu which, though it still exists, has nothing to do with Caribbean witchcraft--rather, it was the acronym for the Viticultores Unidos del Uruguay, a producers' cooperative. Now, Varela Zarranz and a handful of other Uruguayan wineries have focused on fine wines, though some of them still produce jug wines for the domestic market. The house's basement is now an atmospheric tasting room, where Varela and his marketing assistant Magdalena Américo offered samples of its Tannat (Uruguay's signature varietal) and others, most notably the fruity white Petit Grain Muscat--which I had never even heard of.

From Varela Zarranz, I continued to Bodega César Pisano which, by a small margin, has overtaken Juanicó as Uruguay's biggest exporter of fine wines by value.  I'd visited Pisano before, but they still had a couple surprises: as elsewhere, Tannat is the standard, and it's one of the most opaque reds around, but in Uruguay's climate and terrain it's lost the astringency it has in its French Basque homeland. Pisano also produces a sparkling version that's so dark it's almost black, and a dry white Torrontés that Argentine winemakers cultivate at at altitudes up to 3,000 meters. Here it's almost at sea level, and it's different, but still worth seeking out.

Following the asado at Pisano, the tour went to Bodega Filgueira, where a walk around the vineyard with Manuel Filgueira preceded a brief tasting that included Sauvignon Gris of which, according to Filgueira's website, there remain only 50 hectares planted worldwide. By this time, with the amount of wine and food I'd consumed, I was so tired that Manuel offered me a bed for a half-hour nap before continuing to Bodega De Lucca.

Educated in Pennsylvania and France, Reinaldo De Lucca communicates his passion both for wine and for the natural environment that surrounds it, eschewing pesticides and fertilizers, and encouraging wildlife including birds that other winemakers frighten off with recordings and scarecrows. With the sunset over El Colorado creek, it made an ideal spot to wind up the day, while sampling Marsanne (another uncommon white) and a variety of premium reds before I got dropped off at the port of Montevideo to catch the boat back to Buenos Aires.

My several days in Uruguay, in which I visited seven different wineries, reinforced my opinion that Uruguay is an underrated secret in the wine world. Uruguayan vintners have done well to carve out a niche with Tannat, as an entry into markets where their small production--all of Uruguay produces less wine per annum than the Chilean juggernaut Concha y Toro--would otherwise work against them. For wine tourism, the small scale works strongly in their favor, as visitors are often attended by the owners and winemakers themselves. It's a truly personalized experience.

Admittedly, I'm not a wine professional, but I've gained a new admiration for professionals. Especially after a 12-hour day which, if it wasn't exactly stressful, was enough to leave me snoozing in my seat on the three-hour trip back to BA.

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