Descorchados Uruguay 2019

An idea in progress

Patricio Tapia

April 22.2019


The place seems like a park: the perfectly aligned and symmetrical olive trees, the freshly cut lawns, the neatly trimmed vineyards, the occasional glimpse of sculptures, the trees that surround the property. To one side, an oil mill, and to the other, the winery. In the midst of the rolling hills in the José Ignacio zone, just a few kilometers from the sea in the Maldonado Bay, Natalia Welker and Marcelo Conserva’s Bodega Oceánica project is full of meticulous details.

Twenty-one of their 50 hectares correspond to an olive grove that produces nearly 60,000 liters of O’33 oil per year. Another 8 hectares are vineyards planted in 2012 that they have used to produce 30,000 bottles in 2 vintages with the help of winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers, known for his Noemía project in the Argentine Patagonia.

Just like the vineyard landscape, sculptures, and olive grove, the wines also receive meticulous care. We saw that last year, the first time we had the opportunity to taste them in Descorchados. It was a new winery with its first vintage, and it showed some traces of the project they were aiming for—fresh wines oriented toward the sea with the idea of drinking them with grilled fish at the beach. And some of that was there. What we detected in a pinot noir rosé was that freshness, that lively fruit. The rest of the little we tasted, although meticulously made and free of defects, still needed work, especially in conceptual terms. There was very little of that oceanic freshness there.

This year, with its second submission to Descorchados, things get a bit clearer. And although with just 2 vintages on the market, it’s still early to say that Bodega Oceánica has a style, it is possible to see that things are on the right track. And, especially, because behind that artistic, somewhat-sophisticated, somewhat hype side that they prefer, we sense that it’s not just about models opening bottles as they walk along the beach at sunset (as they show on their web site) or the owners’ leanings toward art. There’s substance here, and that is evident, for example, in the 2018 Albariño, which we consider Uruguay’s best white—it’s neat and tidy, but its density and fruit go much further.

Bodega Oceánica has been a revelation at Descorchados this year, one of the many lights we’ve seen in recent times in Uruguay, a country in movement, that has enormous resources—soils, climates, culture—and alone that alone should be enough, it still hasn’t come to believe in itself, nor has it finished mentally developing its concept of Uruguayan wine.

In this context, the irruption of Bodega Garzón on the Uruguayan scene has been determinant. Yes, there’s a lot of money behind it, and that money is evident in the vineyards, the winery, and the facilities at Garzón—and in everything they’ve done, in fact. But we must also have include the trust that an Argentine investor (businessman Carlos Bulgueroni) has placed in Uruguay into the equation. Nobody has communicated Uruguayan wines like they have. And, once again, independent of all the latest technology and all the resources available to communicate it, no matter what the intention is, if you don’t have good wines, everything falls apart.

In the beginning, Bodega Garzón’s wines were disappointing. A lack of balance is understandable in a new winery with new oak, new vineyards, new energy, and lots of desire. But there’s been a noticeable change since 2018, and it has crystalized this year. The 2016 Balasto, for example, the best wine of Uruguay this year, according to Descorchados. It’s not common that the most ambitious wine from a big winery is that fresh and tense. It’s more common to see more fireworks, more potency, more elements that try to demonstrate that there’s a big effort behind it. But the 2016 Balasto, however, seems contained and minimal in its resources. The fruit is out front—a crystalline fruit that aims to show Uruguay’s maritime side that is currently producing the country’s best wines.

And among those, we also need to include Bouza, the Bouza family’s winery that’s currently undergoing a revolution. Their vineyards in Pan de Azúcar, very close to the sea, are producing deliciously fresh wines, while their traditional vineyards in Las Violetas are showing a much fresher, tenser side for the first time. There’s a new orientation there. In the past, the Bouza wines—especially the reds—all seemed too much alike, and they also seemed too close to the imposed global trends of over-ripening. That has changed now, and the best example is the 2017 Parcela Única B28 from Las Violetas. Here the fruit vibrates in its freshness. This wine was named Descorchados’ best tannat this year, tied with Valle de los Manantiales, the tannat that the Deicas family obtained from vineyards in the Garzón zone and that we named best red last year.

Deicas leads the way in the Uruguayan wine scene. Thanks to the restless, curious spirit of young Santiago Deicas, this winery now produces wines with more character than ever before in its history. And yes, it is a large winery, or at least large by Uruguayan standards (approximately 2 million bottles per year), but even so, it has room to experiment, to learn from those experiments, and then to apply them to the rest of the wines in its portfolio.

Deicas has wines with a strong sense of place (Valle de los Manantiales, Cerro del Guazubirá, Mar de Piedras) that have reached this level because they have experimented with the fruit, both in the vineyard and in the winery, through earlier harvests, less extraction, and less oak—in other words, by changing some of the usual techniques used to make wines of greater character. And those lessons have been applied to their other lines, such as, for example, to the simpler wines from Establecimiento Juanicó, where the oak and over-extraction and super ripeness seem to have been left aside to allow the fruity character to predominate. This direction is similar to the one De Martino took years ago in Chile, or Zuccardi in Argentina, 2 examples of wineries with a commercial spirit that have figured out how to achieve balance and offer wines with great character that are also commercial, well made, and in balance.

Clockwise, Natalia and Marcelo from Bodega Oceánica, Juan Bouza, Juan Marichal and Fabiana Bracco.

In this technical tie for Descorchado’s best tannat, we also include Grand Reserve A from Marichal, a family winery in the Canelones zone, led by Juan Andrés Marichal, a winemaker that you should always keep in mind when talking about Uruguayan reds. Marichal selects vines from a half-hectare parcel of the oldest tannat vines on the Etchevarría property, planted in the late 1970s, for a classic wine. Here the tannat shows all its intensity, with all of its fruit. It was due to tannats like this one that we fell in love with the variety 2 decades ago. And this one is a classic.

Viñedo de los Vientos took a different route. From its beginnings, and thanks to the 1998 vintage, Pablo Fallabrino and his wife Mariana Cerutti have preferred to experiment with wines that have little or nothing to do with the trends. Instead, they like the idea of playing with what they both understand about making wines using grapes from their vineyards in Atlántida, where the Atlantic meets Río de la Plata. Viñedo de los Vientos—with its propositions that are sometimes odd, sometimes as refreshing as fruit juice, and other times impenetrable and severe—continues to be a breath of very fresh air in the Uruguayan and South American wine scene.

Bracco Bosca, with just 3 vintages and 45,000 bottles a year, is also in Atlántida (what a great name for an appellation). This little winery, commanded by the energetic Fabiana Bracco, has achieved honest, direct reds with intense fruit. This year we particularly liked the 2018 Gran Ombú # 13, a blend with a predominance of cabernet franc (“my father thought that cabernet franc would be Uruguay’s great variety,” Fabiana says) and that is pure fruit and freshness, but with great depth at the same time. If you can’t find it, try the 2017 Gran Ombú Merlot, one of the great surprises in last year’s Descorchados. Keep a close eye on Bracco Bosca and its pure, refreshing vision of Uruguayan reds.

Other names that you should also remember include Antigua Bodega, Carrau, De Luca, or Pizzorno, emblematic wineries that are producing some of the best wines in their history. Antigua Bodega has left the oak behind and is showing clear, lively fruit; Carrau, always with its classic wines, old-school tannat that provide an overview of the variety; De Lucca and its pure wines full of vitality; and Pizzorno, another of the classics that has been reinvented. Try the 2018 Exclusivo Maceración Carbónica—it has a new name and a new label, but it’s the same wine that has been showing that tannat can also be a light and simple, thirst-quenching wine since 1999.

Other names to keep in mind are Casa Grande and Viña Edén. The young Florencia Maio, fourth generation viticulturist, is in charge of this winery in Canelones. Prior to 2013, they produced grapes for third parties, but it was Florencia who dared to take the step and bottle their own wines. Today they produce some 50,000 bottles, including their outstanding 2015 Gran Tannacito, a traditional austere, severe tannat with firm, piercing tannins and intense acidity that refreshes red and black fruits and spices.

Viña Edén is owned by Mauricio Zlatkin, a Brazilian from Río de Janeiro, who in 2009 made the move from the world of finance to the world of vines, 25 kilometers from the sea, very close to the Laguna del Sauce in Maldonado Bay. There he built an impressive, imposing modern winery that also has a restaurant with an unbeatable view of the zone, the mountains, and the 8 hectares of vineyards. Little by little, Edén’s wines are beginning to show the freshness of its cool setting. This year, for example, we chose Méthode Champenoise Brut Nature Edén, a wine with 85% chardonnay, delicious acidity, and lots of fruit, as the best sparkling wine of the year.

And to wrap up this summary, an example that speaks of what is going on in Uruguay today—last year we dedicated the analysis of the country to the viticultural activity along the coast, especially in Maldonado Bay. Cerro del Toro, the Kambara family’s new project, takes this idea of an Atlantic wine to the extreme with vines planted facing the ocean near the coastal town of Piriápolis and just barely 2 kilometers from the sea. The Kambara family owns shipyards in Japan, and, expanding their business, settled in Uruguay about 45 years ago. They began planting vines just recently in 2016, and they now have 28 hectares facing the Atlantic. In the essentially experimental stage, the 2018 vintage is a glimpse of not only what they can obtain, but also of where Uruguay viticulture can take advantage of the ocean they have in front of it. Their 2018 Tannat smells of the sea, a nod, a sign of the probable future for all of Uruguayan viticulture, so fearful at times, so unsure of its merits.

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