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The Distinctively Delicious Wines of Uruguay
By Michael Franz
Jun 5, 2012
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I’ve been writing about wine for 19 years and have managed to weasel my way into virtually every wine producing country of consequence.  Uruguay was not quite The Final Frontier--to quote Captain Kirk--but it was among the handful of countries yet to stamp my passport, so naturally I jumped at the chance to travel there last month for a week of tasting.

If you are the type of reader who tries to sniff out a subtext from an introduction, you could be thinking at this point, “Okay, so Franz went to Uruguay as a sort of mopping-up operation for the sake of being thorough, just to be sure that a seemingly third-rate wine country isn’t actually second-rate instead, and now he’s going to deliver a lengthy, damning-by-faint-praise account that basically says that Uruguay has “potential.”

That would be a reasonable guess on your part, but it would be wrong.  The upshot about wine from Uruguay is not a matter of “potential” or “promise” but rather of excellence.  This excellence is an accomplished fact, and moreover it is an excellence in a distinctive mode--which is a separate point that is as important as the finding of excellence itself.

Uruguay’s wines bear little resemblance to those of Argentina or Chile.  They display a stylistic profile all their own, and it is a first-rate profile incorporating moderate ripeness and fresh acidity (as in European wines) but generous fruit and relatively soft structure, as in New World wines.  Uruguay is home to a truly distinctive terroir that leaves a deeply etched signature on its wines, both white and red, consequently they are as interesting as they are delicious.

How cool is that?  Pretty damned cool, I’d say, and sorry for the cheesy segue, but cool is a good point of departure for understanding viticulture in Uruguay.  There’s some regional variation in climate within the country, but it is quite a small land by almost any standard, and all of it is significantly cooler and less sun-drenched than neighboring Argentina.

The fact that Uruguay borders on Argentina seems like it would be a lot more important than it actually is, and the reason for this is that Argentina’s important wine regions are nowhere near Uruguay.  They are, rather, hundreds of miles to the west, sitting high and dry in the front ranges of the Andes, whereas every vineyard in Uruguay is near the eastern extreme of the continent, under the more or less direct cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean.

This is crucial for understanding what grapes are grown and what character they impart to the resulting wines.  Since the climate is cooler and more overcast than in any important Argentine region, the grape varieties must have a relatively short ripening cycle and be ready for harvest before regular rains in March slam the door on the annual growing season.  As a result, you’ll find reds in Uruguay like Cabernet Franc and Tannat rather than the slow-to-ripen Cabernet Sauvignon.  And as for really late ripening varieties like Chile’s Carménère…well, forget it…it doesn’t have a prayer in Uruguay and I didn’t see a single example in an intensive week of tasting.

On the white side of the equation, the most important varieties are Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and both can be excellent.  Stylistically, the Sauvignons are situated somewhere between Sancerre and Marlborough, with driving acidity and a fruit profile marked much more by citrus notes than the melon-like character of Sauvignons from California or Bordeaux.  The Chardonnays are mostly on the leaner, fresher side of average, situated closer on the spectrum to Puligny-Montrachet than Carneros.  Albariño is increasingly common and often very good, which makes perfect sense if you recall that the grape’s global springboard is along Atlantic coast of Galicia in Rias Baixas--which is basically the only place in Spain that is cool and damp, like Uruguay.

But wait, you are asking yourself, if this stuff is so good, why haven’t I had a chance to taste it?  There are two answers to this, and I’ve touched on one of them already:  Uruguay is a small country, and although viticulture is important to it in proportional terms, there’s just much juice to spread across world markets.  To give a sense of scale, both Gallo and Concha y Toro produce a lot more wine than all of Uruguay, so don’t hold your breath waiting for giant display stacks of Uruguayan wine at your local retailer.

The other reason that the rest of the world isn’t swimming in wine from Uruguay is that the people of Uruguay…quite sensibly in my view…drink it themselves.  Per capita consumption stands close to 25 liters per year, 250% higher than the USA and the highest in South America.

By making excellent wines and drinking them themselves, the Uruguayans resemble the Swiss, whom they also resemble by having built a conspicuously stable economic and banking system that has made the country a haven for foreign capital.  Uruguay is a safe place to sock away some cash but also an attractive place to invest in land for various purposes--including viticulture.  The wine industry is expanding and actively eyeing export markets, so there’s reason for optimism that wine from Uruguay will become easier to find in the future.

For the moment, though, you’re likely to have to do some looking around, and what you’re likely to find will be red and made from Tannat, which is clearly Uruguay’s calling card in the way that Malbec is virtually synonymous with wine from Argentina.  Tannat makes big, bold, deeply-flavored wine from a short growing season, and in that respect it is perfectly tuned to the place.  During my week in the country I heard--more than once--that Uruguayan growers didn’t choose Tannat so much as Tannat chose Uruguay.

Tannat has been a star performer in the country since it was first planted many decades ago, and there’s no doubt that it has earned its flagship role (whereas one can wonder about the wisdom of Chile hitching its wagon to Carménère, much less South Africa tying its fortunes to Pinotage, which seems downright suicidal).  Virtually every producer in Uruguay works with Tannat and virtually all of them regard it as their top wine--and I saw exactly no reason to differ with their judgment during my week of tasting in the country.

Vintners in Uruguay have become impressively adept at taming Tannat’s famously robust tannins (by means of clonal selection, crop thinning, careful maceration, and several other techniques).  Not every palate will love the intensity of the wines or their blackberry/black current flavor profile, but almost every Tannat I tasted in Uruguay was indisputably sound in structural terms and, as the saying goes, “You can’t please everybody.”

Tannat is usually at its best as a food wine rather than a stand-alone sipper, and since Uruguay’s population leads the entire world in per capita meat consumption, there’s certainly a sense in which Tannat is as well matched to the food culture in Uruguay as it is to the country’s growing conditions.  However, vegetarians will find that Tannat is delicious with aged cheeses.  As for vegans, well, how about sautéed Portobello mushrooms?

The reviews that follow offer details on the best wines that I tasted while in Uruguay.  As this cream-of-the-crop list will demonstrate, there are lots of terrific wines being made in Uruguay aside from Tannat, so I hope you’ll make the effort required to locate some of them and give them a try.  I’m confident that you’ll find them as convincingly distinctive and delicious as I do.

REDS:

Familia Deicas, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “1er Cru de Exception” 2005 ($125, TasteVino Selections):  I suspect that a lot of people would shrink from the prospect of shelling out $125 for a wine from Uruguay, and I can’t help hoping that that is true, since shelling out for a bottle of this is exactly what I’ll do if I ever see one in a retail shop.  It is massive and massively impressive, with terrific concentration and an outstandingly symmetrical, harmonious character despite its impressive complexity.  Dark berry and black current fruit is edged with classy oak and lovely acents of woodsmoke, carpaccio, mushrooms and spices.  Damn!  95

Bouza, Montevideo (Uruguay) “Monte Vide Eu” 2009 ($60):  This is a top-of-the-line “statement” wine, and though this type of product often leaves me cold, I certainly found it easy to warm to this terrific rendition.  The blend is 50% Tannat, 30% Merlot and 20% Tempranillo, and with airing one can find notable traces of each of those varieties in the aromas and flavors.  Dark and extracted, with a serious lashing of oak and a tight, grippy finish, this is certainly a wine for the cellar, but just as certainly a winner for the future.  93

Bodegas Castillo Viejo , Uruguay (Uruguay) 1er Gran Reserva “El Preciado” 2006 ($60):  Housed in a grimly functional old facility, this bodega doesn’t seem especially serious until you have a look at the wines, which are emblazoned with amusingly pretentious names--that they end up earning in spades with absolutely impeccable quality.  This is a blend of 44% Cabernet Franc, 28% Tannat, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot.  The aromas are so expressive that the stock term “explosive” wouldn’t quite be hyperbole, and the faintly earthy undertones also show up on the palate as backnotes to big, bold blackberry flavors.  There’s plenty of fancy French oak to round out the package, which is already very impressive but will still develop in a positive way for five years or more.  93

Varela Zarranz, Uruguay (Uruguay) “Guidai Deti” Gran Reserva 2004 ($60):  At the risk of setting you off on a wild goose chase for a bottle that will surely be tough to track down, this is a superb wine that is among Uruguay’s very best.  Whenever I hear a vintner say that such-and-such a wine is “only made in outstanding years,” I’ve learned to brace myself for a rundown of multiple recent releases that belies the claim.  In this case, though, the wine hasn’t been made again since 2004 (though it will likely be made again from the 2011 vintage, which many regard as the best growing season in the country’s entire history).  The blend is composed of 55% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc.  It shows lovely sweet fruit and alluring accents of cocoa powder, tobacco leaves, sweet spices and cured meat.  Very complex but thoroughly integrated, this is a thoroughbred and an indisputably world-class wine.   93

Giminez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Tannat “Luis A. Gimenez Super Premium” 2007 ($150):  This is a “statement” wine that does indeed make a statement.  Made from such restricted yields that each vine is only asked to ripen a single cluster of grapes, this shows very dark, dense fruit with lots of fancy oak and interesting accents of tar, black tea, vanilla, cocoa powder and spices.  There’s a bit of heat in the finish and the combination of wood and grape tannins is still a bit too prominent at this stage in the wine’s development, but there’s no doubt that this will round into a superb wine with a little time in the cellar.  93

Marichal, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “A” Grand Reserve 2007 ($45, TKO Wines & Face to Face Imports):  The backstory here is that this wine is only made in top vintages and is sourced solely from Marichal’s best plot of vines, which was planted about 22 years ago.  Production was limited to 2,182 bottles (to be precise), and I wish that I owned one of them.  The aromas are spicy and sexy, with plenty of vanilla and smoke showing from a mix of French and American barrels, and though there’s quite a bit of wood showing on the palate as well, the sweet core of fruit never quite relinquishes center stage.  It already shows alluring savory qualities, but won’t hit its peak for another five years, which is roughly how long it is likely to take for the oak to integrate fully and some secondary aromas to arise from bottle ageing.  A successful outcome to this developmental process is assured by the depth of sweet fruit and the striking symmetry of components and the sheer length of the wine’s finish.  93

Altos de la Ballena, Uruguay (Uruguay) Merlot Reserva 2008 ($24):  This is an entirely convincing rendition of Merlot and a wonderful object lesson in Uruguay’s ability to produce wines embodying both Old and New World stylistic elements.  It shows the ripe sweetness of a New World wine with flavors of fresh plums and dark berries, but also shows a savory, mineral component that rides alongside the fruit through the persistent finish.  Oak influence is notable but still subtle, and there’s no question that this will continue to improve despite being exceptionally appealing already.  92

Filgueira, Uruguay (Uruguay) Pinot Noir “Proprium” 2011 ($16):  The fruit from which this wine was made was so outstanding that the winemaker elected not to touch it at all with oak, which seems to me an entirely justified (if rather unorthodox) decision.  Despite its resulting purity, the wine actually seems more masculine than feminine in character--if you’ll permit the analogy--as the fruit recalls black cherries and berries rather than red fruits and is very dense and deeply flavored.  The 2011 vintage was so remarkable by all accounts that I don’t believe it is possible to extrapolate much from this wine about Pinot Noir’s potential in Uruguay, but at a minimum one can say that this is an indisputably marvelous wine.  92

Giminez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Tannat “Premium” 2009 ($25):  This wine shows a lot of class for the money, with impressive concentration and depth of flavor but also a character that seems both natural and complete, which are words of high praise in my lexicon.  The ripe fruit is brightened by notable acidity and the wood seems to be seamlessly integrated.  Terrific stuff.  92

Giminez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Syrah “Alta Reserva” 2011 ($20):  Syrah can pose problems in Uruguay as it is relatively sensitive to botrytis, but the terrific growing season in 2011 didn’t pose any problems along this line, and this stellar example is wonderfully expressive and pure.  The wine is very, very dark and black/purple in color, with exuberant fruit recalling mostly black but also red berries with subtle accents of spice and roasted coffee.  Despite its dark color and impressive density, this is ripe and soft in texture and remarkable for its capacity to work as a stand-alone sipper while also being capable of standing up to all sorts of robust foods.  92

Varela Zarranz, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat Roble “Teatro Solis” 2007 ($20):  When I tasted this early in my recent trip to Uruguay, hard on the heels of a couple of very long flights, the wine was so good that I was sorely tempted to buy a couple of bottles even at the cost of needing to check my bags as a result on the return trip.  It shows knockout aromas of cedar, spices, dried herbs and black berries, and these notes are echoed in the wine’s flavors, which are strongly reminiscent of a classified growth Bordeaux.  Dry and classy, this really seems more like a wine from the Old World than the new, and is best enjoyed during the next three or four years.   92

Bouza, Montevideo (Uruguay) Tannat “Parcella Única B6” 2009 ($39):  Sourced not only from a single vineyard but a particularly outstanding parcel, this is an object lesson in the potential excellence of Uruguay’s signature Tannat wines.  The energetic fruit dominates the aromas and flavors with dark tones of blackberry and black currents, accented with subtle spice notes and a little whiff of wood.  Tannat lovers (whom you should join if you haven’t already) should also watch for the 2010 “Parcella Única A6” which is shows even more muscularity and length without ever turning hard or astringent.  Exemplary winemaking at this estate--remember this name.  92

Gimenez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Cabernet Sauvignon “100 Años Reserva” 2011 ($19):  By virtual consensus 2011 is the best vintage in the history in the history of winemaking in Uruguay, and consumers would be wise to keep that in mind when presented with opportunities to purchase wines such as this.  Cabernet is generally difficult to ripen in  Uruguay, but there’s nothing remotely vegetal or even herbal in the aromas of this wine, which was certainly made from grapes with thorough physiological ripeness.  The fruit component recalls dark cherries and berries and exhibits outstanding purity and balance.  Focused and very persistent in flavor, with tasteful edging from oak, this is just terrific.  91

Giminez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Merlot “Alta Reserva” 2011 ($20):  This is a striking, serious Merlot that shows both red and black berry fruit and lots of firm structure.  The tannins are abundant but well measured, and notable wood influence from a mix of 70% French and 30% American oak contributes additional grip and complexity, but the wine never turns hard or astringent.  Bloody impressive wine.  91

Altos de la Ballena, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat – Viognier Reserva 2009 ($24):  This estate grows Syrah and the proprietors are vocal admirers of Côte Rôtie, so it is more than a little surprising that the red into which they add Viognier is—Tannat.  All of this makes perfect sense once one tastes the wines, as Altos de la Ballena’s Syrah is already lovely and feminine on its own, whereas Uruguay’s black-fruited Tannat certainly doesn’t need to be any more masculine, and can certainly benefit from the tenderness and perfume of a variety like Viognier.  The blend certainly works in this case, with plenty of driving dark fruit flavors but also an admirably complex bouquet and a soft textural profile.   91

Bodegas Castillo Viejo / Cata Mayor, Uruguay (Uruguay) “Grand Tannat” 2007 ($36):  This Bodega isn’t exactly shy when it comes to naming its wines, but as Muhammad Ali famously quipped, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”  And indeed, this Tannat is pretty damned grand, with alluring scents of dark fruit, spices, carpaccio and cocoa powder.  It packs a lot of flavor onto a relatively modest, medium-bodied frame, which will make it unusually versatile for a serious rendition of Tannat, enabling it to work well with the usual suspects like grilled steak or sausage but also with robust pasta dishes or duck confit.  91

Pisano, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat 2008 ($22, Total Wines):  This “RPF” private family reserve bottling is, of course, neither private nor reserved for the family, yet everything else that I heard claimed about the wine was corroborated by the juice in the bottle.  It shows soft, ripe, faintly floral aromas and an inviting, delicate fore-palate filled with fresh fruit.  The dark-toned flavors firm up toward the wine’s finish, ultimately showing a meaty character and plenty of tannic structure, but the overall tasting experience is coherent and convincing.  This is a terrific introduction to the wonders of Uruguayan Tannat, so keep an eye peeled for this beauty.  Moreover, the Cabernet Sauvignon in this same line, which I tasted in a restaurant while not under the spell of this charming family, is also exceptionally good and well worth a search.  91

Bodegas Castillo Viejo / Cata Mayor, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat – Tempranillo “Grand Vin” 2006 ($36):  Grand Vin, eh?  Well yes, actually.  This blend of 70% Tannat and 30% Tempranillo lives up to its name with deep flavors and terrific balance between sweet fruit, spicy oak, fresh acidity and fine-grained tannins.  Complex and classy, this could easily be mistaken for a European wine in style, and its beautifully silky texture and classy profile make it a wine to seek out.  91

Bodegas Garzon, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat 2010 ($20):  This wine is the product of a jaw-dropping vineyard and winery still being developed in northern Uruguay, and everything about the project beggars belief.  When I say everything, I mean everything, and this wine is no exception:  Made from vines that are just in their second year or “leaf,” this is the first crop and so of course was treated to French oak that was entirely new…which sounds like a potentially disastrous combination, but quite clearly isn’t.  The wine shows perfectly pure primary fruit aromas and flavors recalling blackberries and black plums, along with subtle toasty, spicy accents that lend lots of interest without ever elbowing the gorgeous fruit from center stage.  Based on this initial effort, one can hardly imagine how good these wines may become in the future.  The indicated price of $20 is merely a guess, as these wines aren't yet released into ordinary commercial channels, but this project expresses a commitment to pricing the wines at relatively modest levels.  You may need to travel to Uruguay to taste this wine, which I certainly recommend that you do.
91

Filgueira, Uruguay (Uruguay) Cabernet Franc – Syrah “Classic” 2011 ($12):  This is a 60/40% blend of Cabernet Franc and Syrah that is marvelously open and juicy, with very pure fruit that is unencumbered by wood.  The fruit notes recall dark berries and cherries, and the wine is so delicious that it serves as a powerful reminder of the extraordinary quality of the 2011 vintage in Uruguay.  91

Filgueira, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “Proprium” 2011 ($16):  This excellent wine is the Tannat to buy from Filgueira amont the current releases, clearly outshining the 2011 “Classic” and the 2009 “Reserva.”  Six months of American and French oak led appealing aromatic accents and nice spice notes in the finish, but it is the dense, sweet blackberry fruit that is the real star of this show.  Sweetness and purity are the predominant impressions from start to finish, and though this is already excellent, it will develop into an even better wine over the course of the next three or four years.  91

Irurtia, Rio de la Plata (Uruguay) Tannat Gran Reserva 2008 ($20):  This strong performer spent 15 months in oak and shows it, but there’s plenty of black fruit to counterbalance the wood notes.  The tannins are abundant but neither coarse nor astringent, and though this will be even better if you can age it for another couple of years, it can certainly be enjoyed now with meats or aged cheeses.  91

Filgueira, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat – Cabernet Franc “Classic” 2011 ($12):  Very nearly black in color, this is a remarkably assertive wine for one that was made entirely without oak.  The blend is 50/50 but the Tannat trumps the Cabernet Franc quite clearly, as a comparison to the 2011 Cabernet Franc – Syrah demonstrates.  Grippy tannins and a hint of bitterness in the finish suggest that this will need a little time to hit its stride, but it is already very good with food and sure to earn this excellent score.  90

Familia Deicas, Juanico Canelones (Uruguay) “Preludio” Barrel Select Lot 86 2006 ($50, TasteVino Selections):  This is a big wine with lovely sweetness even at six years of age, along with nice spicy oak notes and an accent of dill.  This shows no sign of undesirable ageing and in fact seems a sure bet to get even better over the course of the next five or more years.  The wine has a terrific track record, as demonstrated by the 1997, which is still marvelous today.  90

Bouza, Montevideo (Uruguay) Merlot “Parcella Única B9” 2010 ($39):  This serious wine was treated to 100% new French oak, and though a few years of ageing will be required for the fruit to soak up all of that wood, the proportions are just right.  Packed with black plum and dark berry fruit, with smoky, spicy oak accents, this is already terrific and destined for an even brighter future.  90

Marichal, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “Reserve Collection” 2009 ($18, TKO Wines & Face to Face Imports):  This is Marichal’s middle tier Tannat, and though I don’t mean to imply that you should dismiss the entry-level “Premium Varietal” Tannat from 2010, this is worth the price difference if you’re presented with a choice.  With a subtle wisp of smoky oak and fine balance between dark fruit and ripe tannin, this is meaty and satisfying without ever turning rough.  Fine growing and winemaking is in evidence here.  90

Altos de la Ballena, Uruguay (Uruguay) Cabernet Franc Reserva 2008 ($24):  Made entirely from Cabernet Franc and aged exclusively in French oak, this is packed with sweet fruit that punches right through the wood notes and persists quite impressively on the palate.  Give this a few years to settle out and develop some secondary characteristics from bottle again and you’ll have a true beauty on your hands.  90

Bodegas Carrau, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “Ysern” 2005 ($20, Michael Downey Selections):  My favorite Tannat from this large producer, “Ysern” is a multi-regional blend with plenty of oak showing on the nose but lots of concentrated, flavorful fruit beneath it.  At this (nearly optimal) point in its development it shows some secondary aromas and flavors suggesting that it is fully mature, but there’s still plenty of sweet blackberry fruit at the core and lots of freshening acidity.  90

Bodegas Castillo Viejo / Cata Mayor, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat – Cabernet Franc Reserva 2009 ($20):  This house is famous for Cabernet Franc sourced from old vines, so it is no great surprise that a blend of Tannat and Cab Franc from this producer would really sing--which this does.  It doesn’t show much of the herbal aromatic character that Cab Franc often displays, but there’s an abundant, charming impression of sweetness at the wine’s core that provides a lovely foil to the black muscularity of the Tannat.  Dark berries and black plums are the lead fruit notes, and the balance between sweetness and tannin is excellent, permitting early enjoyment or several years of further positive development in the cellar.  90

Bodegas Castillo Viejo / Cata Mayor, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat “Reserva de la Familia” 2008 ($25):  This isn’t quite as complex as Castillo Viejo’s blend of Tannat and Cab Franc, but it shows even more depth and drive, with dark toned fruit and lots of tannin and acidity.  Not a wine for stand-alone sipping, this is serious stuff best paired with grilled meat, and once tasted with cheese or a steak, you’ll find this complete and convincing.  90

Pizzorno Family Estates, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tinto Reserva 2008 ($24, Sommelier Imports; Icarus):  This wine remains just a bit tight and hard, but it oozes quality and promise for those with a bit of patience.  The blend is 60% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot.  These lots were vinified separately, aged in French oak for a year, and then blended and merged in barriques for another four months before bottling.  The fruit shows good ripeness but also bright acidity and serious tannic grip.  The proportions are right, and with a little time to unwind, this will likely merit an even higher score.  90

Varela Zarranz, Uruguay (Uruguay) Cabernet Franc “Roble” 2009 ($13):  I’m not sure that vintners in Uruguay fully appreciate how good their own bottlings of Cabernet Franc are when stacked up against those offered from elsewhere in the world, but this is a realization that will ultimately dawn on anyone who tastes the best examples in a broad critical context.  This wine sells for nine bucks in Uruguay, and I’d have quite gladly packed it back to the USA by the case had that been possible.  It shows gorgeous fruit recalling dried cherries along with lovely aromas of dried herbs and autumn leaves that ring perfectly true to the grape variety.  Damn, this is impressive for the money!  90

Giminez Mendez, Canelones (Uruguay) Tannat “Alta Reserva” 2010 ($20):  This wine doesn’t quite measure up to the Merlot or the Cabernet in this “Alta Reserva” line, but the fact that it even comes close to those wines from the spectacularly good 2011 vintage shows how congenial conditions are for Tannat in Uruguay.  The primary fruit notes recall blackberries and black currents, with abundant but ripe tannins and an appealing savory undertone and emerging accents of black tea and tobacco leaf.  90

Familia Deicas, Canelones (Uruguay) Tannat “Pueblo del Sol” 2011 ($17, TasteVino Selections):  This is a delicious wine that will only get better and more interesting over the next few years, as its only drawback is a slightly grapey character that isn’t surprising or indicative of a flaw at this early stage of development.  The fruit is sweet and sappy and very ripe, but there’s still an appealing freshness to it that keeps the wine in fine form.  89

Pizzorno Family Estates, Uruguay (Uruguay) Tannat – Merlot “Don Próspero” 2011 ($13, Sommelier Imports; Icarus):  This blend from Uruguay is very meaty and satisfying, with rounded fruit flavors showing both red and black tones and nice tannic grip in the finish.  The blend is 60$ Tannat and 40% Merlot, and it is soft enough to sip on its own but also sufficiently robust to stand up to a steak.  89

Pizzorno Family Estates, Uruguay (Uruguay) Pinot Noir “Don Próspero” Reserva 2011 ($13, Sommelier Imports; Icarus):  This is a good wine that will become even better in a year or two, as it was bottled a bit too early and shows a slightly reductive aromatic character.  You can get that to blow off if you aerate it aggressively now, but the wine should really be laid down for a year or two and permitted to come into its own.  It will reward patience with fresh fruit recalling red cherry and strawberry and impressively delicate character--rather than the chunky texture that afflicts so much Pinot at this price level.  This is only the fifth vintage of this wine, making it one to watch for the future.  88


ROSÉ:

Marichal, Uruguay (Uruguay) Pinot Noir/Chardonnay “Blanc de Noir Reserve Collection” 2011 ($18):  This wine isn’t easy to categorize or compare to anything else on the market but it is damned sure easy to enjoy.  It is essentially a rosé, though there’s nothing in the packaging that I examined that describes it as such.  The fruit recalls fresh strawberries and ripe apples, with moderate weight and depth of flavor but a lifted, bright finish.  This might well drive a marketing manager to drink, but at least the drinking part of that would go well.  89


WHITE:

Bouza, Montevideo (Uruguay) Chardonnay 2011 ($17):  Of course the world is packed with Chardonnay, so of course you shouldn’t bother trying to find this one from Uruguay--which would leave less for me.  It shows terrific complexity, with aromas and flavors of stone fruits, butterscotch, and tropical fruits, all effectively energized by zesty citrus acidity.  The oak is subtle and lovely, and the overall profile is fruit-driven rather than mineral in a New World style.  Outstanding winemaking here.  91

Bouza, Montevideo (Uruguay) Albariño 2011 ($20):  This may anger some of my friends in Spain, but just because Albariño rose to international fame in Galicia doesn’t mean that it won’t show even higher quality somewhere else in the world.  Whether this grape can accomplish a feat akin to what Malbec achieved when fleeing France for Argentina remains to be seen, but this wine is good enough to cause some sleepless nights in Rias Baixas if anyone there is paying attention.  It shows subtle floral aromas but broad texture and real substance on the palate, with peach and citrus flavors that are energized by exceptionally prominent acidity.  Indeed, what is most remarkable about this wine is that it shows so much acidic drive for a wine of impressive richness and weight.  Terrific stuff.  91

Pisano, Uruguay (Uruguay) Torrontés “Rio de los Pájaros” 2011 ($14, Total Wines):  Since Uruguay sits check by jowl with Argentina, you might think that Torrontes is easy to find there.  On the contrary, this is the only rendition made in Uruguay, from vine stock that was snuck into the country during the early 1980s.  [Shhhh…]  It is a terrific expression of the grape, with expressive floral aromas and fresh citrus fruit but true dryness.  The dry finish doesn’t seem awkward after the floral scents offer a suggestion of sweetness, and by surmounting that chronic problem of “disagreement” between aroma and flavor, this wine shows itself as one of the best of the breed from anywhere.  I’ve also tasted a tan sample of the as-yet-unbottled 2012, and should you happen upon that wine in the future, buy it with confidence.  90

Irurtia, Rio de la Plata (Uruguay) Gewurztraminer “Km 0” Reserva 2011 ($15, Uruguayan Imports):  This very unusual Gewurztraminer shows less aromatic pungency than most, but still enough to satisfy all but the most intense Gewurz fanatics.  Conversely, it shows much more acidity than the norm, making it unusually appealing to Gewurz detractors--such as myself.  Strikingly fresh and full of fun, this is definitely worth a try if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle.  The “Km 0” designation is a reference to the altitude--or lack thereof--of vineyards in this sub-region near the mouth of the massive river that separates Montevideo from Buenos Aires.  90

Marichal, Uruguay (Uruguay) Chardonnay “Premium Varietal” 2011 ($14):  This is a lean, racy, un-oaked Chardonnay that provides no indication of that fact, and may consequently prove a bit surprising to those who don’t know exactly what they’re getting.  Those who hope for a big, buttery wine will be disappointed, whereas those who hope for something fresh and even Chablis-like will be delighted.  As for myself, I fell into the latter camp.  The fruit recalls green apples, with a subtle trace of minerality in the finish.  90

Bodegas Carrau, Uguguay (Uruguay) Petit Manseng/Sauvignon Gris “1752 Gran Tradition” 2010 ($18, Michael Downey Selections):  If you’ve got a wine-loving acquaintance who thinks he can identify any wine based on blind tasting, here’s the bottle to shut him up once and for all.  Made from 90% Petite Manseng and 10% Sauvignon Gris that was entirely barrel fermented, it shows aromas of sweet flowers and backs them up with flavors recalling mandarin oranges and ripe melons.  With precise balance between ripe richness and acidic cut, this is seriously sexy stuff.  90