Uruguayans are probably tired of hearing their country described as "the Switzerland of South America". Uruguayan wine-makers feel this journalistic cliché is particularly inappropriate when applied to their wines, which are produced in a country of rolling grassy plains, with few hills higher than 2,000 feet (300 metres).
Uruguay may be the smallest republic in South America, yet it is still far larger than the United Kingdom. Its wine production may not match that of the ABC triumvirate of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, but it has useful advantages over them in several viticultural ways.
It has, for example, the strictest wine regulations of any of its fellow-members of the mercosur market. Its total population, though not much over three million, consumes over 30 litres of wine per person per year, giving growers a guaranteed and appreciative local market.
On the whole the climate is kind and a predominantly maritime one, though wine is grown throughout the country - from the south-west corner where the River Plate divides Uruguay from Argentina and then up to the border with Brazil in the warm semi-tropical far north.
This year's London International Wine and Spirits Fair held at Excel in London's docklands made it clear that the emphasis on Uruguay today and in the future will lie in the quality of its exports.
Uruguayan wines may not come to Europe in supermarket quantities, but exporters will look to benefit from finding niche markets in countries where sophisticated consumers are willing to spend a little more. That is, buyers who spend a little more than the lowest discount offer available and who understand that a pound or so over the bottom prices on offer do represent much more in terms of value for money.
The Uruguayan economy is inevitably closely linked with that of its large neighbour Argentina, but even here there are benefits as well as disadvantages. Uruguay was helpful towards Britain during the Falklands War, and in recent years has avoided most of the worst economic shortcomings which result from military takeovers.
One distinctive feature of Uruguayan wine production is its flag-bearer grape — the Tannat. This is a red grape that is generally ignored in Europe and much of the rest of the New World, but which thrives in Uruguay. It mixes well with better-known European varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Barbera, which also grow well there. As its name implies it is strong in tannin, produces wine of a rich ruby colour, sold at a good strength.
In France, Tannat is the main wine of a part of the Basque country — Madiran — in the south-east of the country, north of the Pyrenees. It has been grown there since ancient Roman days, in a similar mild, oceanic semi-humid climate to that of Uruguay. But it went out of fashion after the barbarian invasions of France. Restored centuries later it achieved its next prominence by being on the Pilgrim Route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, where pilgrims reported on it well.
Struck in the 19th Century by successive plagues of odium, mildew and phylloxera, Tannat really only revived again in France after the end of the Second World War.
And it is only very recently that the wine-producers and the economics of Uruguay saw the export possibilities and began selling into Europe. Among other things producer-links were established with wine-makers such as the Lurtons and Freixenet; and Uruguay benefitted from the flying wine-makers who spread the word about modern methods and machinery. This year's London International Fair proved an excellent venue for Uruguayan wine-growers to publicise their wares.
Another advantage enjoyed by the wine-makers of Uruguay, apart from their strong home market, is that a goodly proportion of the wine-producers are still family firms. Many are descendants of Spanish and Italian immigrants, with three generations at least very common, and with fathers and brothers and sons (and daughters) wholly engaged in producing and marketing the wine, these Uruguayan wines do well.
Although grapes are grown, as mentioned, throughout Uruguay the main growing area is Canelones, within easy reach of the capital and its port of Montevideo, served by good modern roads and railways. Grapes are generally hand-picked and the wine is made with modern machinery in hygienic and controlled conditions.
Interesting comparisons between the European-grown Tannats from Madiran (and its allied areas of Yroulegui and Cotes de St.Mont) and the Tannats of Uruguay were made at a competitive wine-tasting reported in the Spanish food and wine magazine Sobremesa. Wines from six European Tannats (which in Madiran are generally mixed with small proportions of other red wine grapes) were tasted against a similar number of Uruguayan wines almost all 100% Tannat.
The winner by a short margin was a 1999 Chateau Viella Village from Madiran (mostly Tannat, but with some Cabernet Sauvignon), which was awarded 82 points. A 2000 Casa Luntro (100% Tannat) from Canelones in Uruguay, was in second place at 80 points.
Third place (78 points each) was shared by a 1999 Chateau de Sabazan from the Cotes de Saint Mont in France and a 2002 Pisano from Progreso in Canelones. Thereafter in the placings European-grown Tannats alternated with the Uruguayan entries. Most of the wines being compared were 13.5% The wine placed last was the cheapest and the weakest at 12% - which may or may not be significant.
Summing-up, it is good that a careful wine-producing country such as Uruguay appears to be, is choosing to concentrate on as sturdy a grape as the Tannat and is going for quality over quantity.
Best of all, the wines being exported are being made by family firms determined to find their niche levels in Europe and elsewhere overseas.
Some of the most pleasant Uruguayan wines enjoyed by your correspondent at the 2004 London International Wine Fair were from Bodega Bouza a typical family business determinedly concentrating on quality. Its red 2003, which spent 9 months in new barrels, half of them French oak and half American, was a mixture of 60% Tannat and 40% Merlot. Bodega Bouza (and its owners are only too aware that in English their family name has a certain suggestion of drinkworthiness) also had two Chardonnays (one oaked) and a 100% unfiltered Merlot.
Uruguayan wines are not yet available everywhere in Britain, though Marks & Spencer has been selling them for several years now. My records show I enjoyed an excellent Juaníco region Tannat of 1996, as well as a Merlot and a combined Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer of that same vintage year. Inspired by this renewed acquaintance with Uruguayan wines, your correspondent has met a 2002 Pizzorno Tinta Reserva which is a mixture of Tannat, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As the label declares, the grapes were all harvested by hand, with the varieties individually fermented and then aged in new French oak and one-year old American barrels. Sold by Waitrose at £7.95.
It is nice too to be able to record that the 2004 vintage in Uruguay has been a good one. A mild spring, a good summer and rain mostly at the right time ensured healthy wines in that main Canelones area. Harvest quantity was up some 20 percent over 2003, and several of the producers displaying their wares at the London Fair this year said that 2004 might yet prove the best Uruguayan vintage of the decade.