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Uruguay's road to vintage status

The tiny country is becoming known for its fine wines, many from the Juanico area.

November 30, 2008|Claudia Capos | Capos is a freelance writer

JUANICO VILLAGE, URUGUAY — Wind-tousled grapevines, marching in cornrow-straight lines and hung with pearl-like clusters of light-green fruit, stretch as far as the eye can see across gently rolling farmland near the village of Juanico in the Canelones District. Flowering red rosebushes punctuate the ends of each row, and tiro-tiro birds, named for their unique call, nest on wooden fence posts. Stalwart pine trees shield the vines from unkind winds along the 34th southern parallel.

The Canelones District is home to the Juanico wine region, just a 45-minute drive from the Rio de la Plata, the broad, slow-moving river that flows between Argentina and its northern neighbor Uruguay.

Surprisingly, the Juanico region is not part of Argentina, a well-known wine producer and exporter. It belongs to tiny Uruguay and serves as a gateway to the Wine Roads, a stretch of 15 bodegas where wine aficionados can stroll through vineyards, tour century-old cellars and sample fine wines and local cuisine.

"All the wineries in our wine tourism association export their wines, which guarantees excellent quality," explains Wine Roads coordinator Ana Ines Motta. "Visitors can take organized winery tours from Montevideo, rent a car or hire a private car and driver who will take them on a self-directed tour of the vineyards. Many vacationers also like to combine winery visits with golfing and trips to the beach on the eastern seacoast."

We arrived in Montevideo aboard Celebrity Cruises' Infinity during a two-week trip around Cape Horn in January. This was our first port-of-call after leaving Buenos Aires the day before. While fellow passengers scurried off to the beaches or joined city tours, we chose to spend our day learning more about the wine industry in Uruguay.

During the afternoon, we took a winery tour from Montevideo to the Canelones District that included a visit to the historic wine cellars at the Juanico Winery and a sampling of their award-winning vintages. Having savored the sight of thick sides of beef, pork and lamb sizzling on wood-fire grills at small bistros inside the cavernous Mercado del Puerto that morning, we thought a few glasses of rich, flavorful wine would be a perfect way to round out the day. Juanico proved to be an enchanting estate that whetted our appetite for exploring the many other family-run wineries in the area.

Spanish settlers actually brought the first grapevines to Uruguay during the colonial period, according to historical accounts. By the mid-1800s, a viable commercial-wine industry was beginning to take hold, with Tannat as the principal variety of grape.

About 270 wine producers cultivate relatively small vineyards -- approximately 25,000 acres combined -- and occupy a viable niche market in South America. The Canelones District accounts for 60% of the national production. Most Uruguayan bodegas are owned and operated as family businesses, some dating back generations to the early Spanish immigrants and the Italians who followed them and set up wine production.

"Each winery has a special appeal, so it depends upon the visitor's particular interest," says Motta, who fields inquiries and provides detailed information about the bodegas. "Los Cerros de San Juan, one of Uruguay's oldest wine producers, has beautiful vineyards and excellent wines. Its proximity to Colonia del Sacramento makes it a must-see stop on any trip.

"Bodega de Lucca is a tiny winery where the owner-winemaker guides each tour personally. If you visit early in the morning, he offers a tasting with wine and fresh-picked fruit."

At Bodega Marichal, a small winery run by third- and fourth-generation family members, "Granny" Teresita serves as the cook and makes visitors feel at home. The winery tour at Casa Filgueira emphasizes environmental sustainability and quality management. The Juanico Winery, or Establecimiento Juanico, one of the pioneers in innovation and exportation, caters to large tour groups, as well as small parties of travelers.

In northern Uruguay, Bodegas Carrau-Riviera entices wine lovers to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings for a few days.

Detailed maps, descriptions and directions to the Wine Roads bodegas can be found online at www.uruguaywinetours.com. Once visitors have decided on the wineries they wish to see, Motta can help them plan their route and make reservations 24 hours in advance. Generally, the cost of a tasting, which includes three or four wines, bread and cheese and a tour of the winery, is $15 per person. The price for lunch, usually a typical Uruguayan barbecue of beef steak, pork ribs and spicy sausages with Tannat wine, runs between $40 and $60 a person.

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