There’s a moment
– just one –
when sand blends with water
in a repeated and constant movement.
That moment, almost secret,
gives birth at night to glow worms
that inhabit intoxicate soothe
and in the half dream of sleepless encounter
they elevate it
to the highest point of reverie and time.
It’s in that subtle border of the shore
where the paradox of love is played out
because sand always returns to its arid dunes
and the water ebbs to the hard coral of its depths.
(“The Shore” by Uruguayan poet Jorge Arbeleche)
Water is the essence of southern Uruguay; come summer thousands of wealthy Argentines and Uruguayans descend on the chic Atlantic beach towns of Punta del Este and José Ignacio, while youngsters with less cash to splash head to party hotspots like Punta del Diablo where the cumbia flows freely all day long. Far to the west, the sleepy town of Carmelo is dominated by the widest estuary in the world, the vast, murky Rio de la Plata. This imposing stretch of water demarcates the border between Uruguay and neighbouring Argentina, which is just a short ferry hop away. An independence era settlement full of single story, Wild West-type buildings, Carmelo is the perfect place to let go and submerge yourself in fine wines, luxurious accommodation and dining options, and the pure, unaffected humility of Uruguayan hospitality.
Carmelo: A mini Bordeaux?
Thanks to the influence of the Río de la Plata river system and proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as limestone soils rich in calcium akin to those found in St Emilion, the Carmelo wine region is almost a mini Bordeaux sans chateaux. A combination of cooling coastal breezes and warm water flowing out of the Río Uruguay and into the Río de la Plata help to create a microclimate with warm days and cool nights which is well-suited to grape growing. The extra warmth ensures that Carmelo’s grapes reach maturity some 15 to 20 days before other Uruguayan winegrowing regions at the same latitude which don’t benefit from the influence of these river systems.
As we experienced firsthand on our first day in Carmelo, the region’s soggy climate is another point of similarity with Bordeaux. What began as a light afternoon drizzle as we boldly sallied forth on bikes for our first vineyard visit soon turned into a heavy downpour which dashed any hopes of further cycling! (Luckily the gallant Bernardo of Bodega el Legado came to our rescue.)
Rainfall in Carmelo typically averages 800 – 1200 mm per annum. Just as in AOC vineyards in Bordeaux, the sheer amount of water falling from the sky year round means that while irrigation is not necessary, in wet years well-draining soils are essential. Typically vineyards closer to the river benefit from deep soils mostly composed of sand which ensures good drainage. The proximity of the coast also means that soils often contain significant calcium levels and fossilized seashells. Visit Narbona and you’ll find proof of said shells in the rock used to construct their magnificent cathedral-like cellar.
Again like its French cousin, the weather here is frequently unpredictable; some years winemakers question why they started all this vinous malarkey in the first place. 2014 was a particularly tricky year, with excessive rainfall severely impairing ripening and leaving many Carmelo wineries with little to show for that year’s vintage. Better years typically have lower rainfall coupled with a decent thermal amplitude. To put it simply, when it’s good, it’s bloody good stuff!
Tannat and some delicious surprises
If you’ve tried a Uruguayan wine before, chances are it was a Tannat. The variety probably originally hails from the Basque country and has a strong presence in Madiran in Southwest France. It was brought to Uruguay by Pascual Harriague, a Basque immigrant, in 1870 and currently accounts for 24% of all Uruguay’s wine grape plantings. In Carmelo most wineries stick to this trend by focusing on producing hefty Reserva and Gran Reserva single varietals when weather conditions allow! These wines hark back to their Old World roots with restrained fruit, good acidity and the variety’s classic high tannin levels which Tannat is thought to have been named after. And much like great Bordeaux, the best of the bunch need plenty of oaky beauty sleep in a dark and quiet cellar before they’re ready to be let loose on the public.
Carmelo also shows great promise for typical Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as well as refined Syrahs and Pinot Noirs. Things are not so rosy for Cabernet Sauvignon; both rainfall and average annual temperatures are higher than over in Bordeaux which makes ripening the grape challenging . The couple of examples I tried had fresh fruit and some herbaceousness, but lacked concentration and focus. The climate here does seem to be becoming less wet and hotter, though, which may open up opportunities for those more fickle varieties in the long term.
While the reds may have grabbed all the attention thanks to the international profile of Uruguayan Tannat, Carmelo’s winemakers haven’t forgotten the other colours of the wine rainbow. After sampling dozens of Carmelo wines, for me some of the most memorable have to be the region’s unique pale salmon-hued Tannat rosés, creamy barrel-aged Viogniers, and uplifting Albariños and Sauvignon Blancs which exude the crisp freshness of a blustery day at the local beach. Just the thing for Uruguayans’ favourite weekend activity; a long, lazy afternoon spent with family and friends doing absolutely nothing but enjoying each other’s company and the great outdoors.
Tannat may still be the undisputed monarch in these parts, but increasingly Carmelo’s winemakers are experimenting with everything from Gewurztraminer to Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. Throughout Uruguay winemakers have traditionally focused on large scale production of table wines, with most of the handful of fine wine producers here only opening their doors within the last 15 years. These new wineries are swiftly putting Carmelo on the map as a quality Uruguayan wine region and luxury tourism hotspot, drawing increasing numbers of visitors from Montevideo, Brazil, and further afield with every passing year.
The epitome of this encounter between tradition and modernity can be found at Carmelo’s largest winery, Bodega Familia Irurtia, which saw its first harvest in 1913 at the hands of Basque immigrant Don Lorenzo Irurtia who arrived in Uruguay in the second half of the 19th century. Under the careful leadership of Lorenzo’s grandson, Dante Irurtia, the winery became hugely successful thanks to his visionary innovations and modernisation of winemaking practices. Something of a local legend, Dante is credited with the introduction of Merlot to Uruguay and the country’s first use of the Lyre vine training system which is commonly used today throughout the region.
Like most Uruguayan wineries, the winery is still owned by the same family and produces some 2 million litres of wine annually (or around one bottle of wine for every 2 Uruguayans given this tiny nation’s 3.5 million population!). Irurtia is Uruguay’s third biggest producer and also boasts Uruguay’s largest vineyard by area. They’re particularly proud of their Km 0 line of wines which are named after the point very close to Carmelo at which the Uruguay and Paraná rivers join to form the Río de la Plata. Notable wines include their Gran Reserva Pinot Noir and a creamy Gran Reserva Viognier which spends 6 months in French and American oak.
To get a true feel for Carmelo’s wine scene, though, you need to head out to the wineries which personify the region’s simple, laid-back character. These are Bodega El Legado, Posada Campo Tinto, and Narbona, small boutique wineries a short(ish) bike ride from the town whose combined total annual output is less than 100,000 bottles. While these three all focus on the production of Uruguay’s classic hearty Tannat, they’re also leading the way with very small batch creations of mouth tingling whites and surprisingly versatile rosés. For more on these wineries, check out Part #2 and Part #3 of this Carmelo guide where I’ll be introducing some local characters who are slowly putting the region on the map with their vinous delights.
Carmelo’s other delights
Aside from all that wine, Carmelo itself boasts little of interest except for a few out of town attractions which might amuse you for an hour or two (they call it sleepy for a reason). If you arrive by ferry you’ll no doubt spot the striking red swing bridge which was built in 1912 and is only one of it’s kind in South America. This brightly-coloured landmark is an important source of local pride; when I was researching my trip I came across an internet forum where residents were debating what tourists thought of their bridge. So they say, whoever crosses the bridge will always return to Carmelo. Whether you believe in the superstition or not, crossing the bridge is highly recommended as a 10 minute walk along the opposite bank brings you to Playa Seré, Carmelo’s inviting beach. The water of the Río de la Plata may be a murky brown (except at sunset when it reveals the silver hue of it’s name), but here the coast is graced with fine white sand and sturdy eucalyptus trees providing exquisite shade. In summer there are a couple of restaurants right on the beach which would be perfect for a romantic aperitif as you watch the sun go down and the bright lights of nearby Buenos Aires become visible across the river.
To get a better idea of the wine history of the region, drop by the Calera de las Huérfanas or “The Lime Kiln of the Orphan Girls”. These oddly-named enigmatic ruins are all that remain of a Jesuit mission built in 1740. Like many wine regions of South America, it was the Jesuits who first initiated winemaking here in Carmelo since it served an essential role in the celebration of Mass (and also tasted pretty damn good). After the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the site was administered by the father of José de San Martín, the much-revered liberator of southern Spanish America who is regarded as a national hero in Argentina. And what about the mysterious “Orphan Girls”? Well, in 1777 the Sisters of Charity came here from Buenos Aires to start a home for orphaned girls. Today very little remains of the past, except the roofless church and the outline of the girls’ dormitories. The mission is best reached by car or taxi from Carmelo since it lies 13km out of town off Ruta 21 heading towards Colonia del Sacramento.
If you’re planning a trip to South America, I highly recommend taking a few days to visit to Carmelo. The winemakers and winery owners are some of the most friendly, humble people I have ever met. Tourism is consistently growing here, yet the region still epitomises the tranquil, homely feel of a little Uruguayan town where outsiders are enthusiastically welcomed as new friends.
Buses depart regularly for Carmelo from the Tres Cruces bus station in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, with a journey time of around 3 and a half hours. You can check the timetable and buy tickets here. If you’re coming from Buenos Aires, there’s a twice-daily ferry service run by Cacciola which leaves from the nearby town of Tigre and takes about 2 and a half hours to make the crossing. Cacciola also offers a very handy transfer bus which collects you from the centre of Buenos Aires and takes you directly to the ferry terminal in Tigre. Alternatively, most Carmelo hotels can arrange luxury transfers from Montevideo or assist with car hire recommendations.
Sleeping & Eating
The best options for wining, dining and accommodation are found in the tranquil countryside around Carmelo. The comprehensive and luxurious Narbona Wine Lodge boasts beautiful rooms overlooking the vines and a fantastic restaurant which features breads, cheeses, meats, jams, olive oil and, of course, wine, all made on site. There’s also a gym, swimming pool, mountain bikes to explore the local vineyards, and the option to picnic amongst the vines. If it’s perfect tranquility you seek, there’s no need to even leave the premises.
A little closer to Carmelo itself is Posada Campo Tinto, another of the boutique wineries mentioned above which also offers rooms. Facilities are similar to Narbona; there’s a popular in-house restaurant, opportunities to reserve an asado (barbeque) or picnic amongst the vines, and an outdoor swimming pool for the summer.
If you do prefer to stay in town, the conveniently-located Los Muelles Boutique Hotel right by the ferry terminal or the Ah’lo Posada Hostel Boutique in the centre of town would be my top picks. We spent two nights at the latter which has an unmissable bright pink facade and boasts light and airy rooms accented with well-chosen antique furniture. Delicious fresh lemons from the adorable little garden left in the kitchen for guests to use, a roaring log fire every evening, and very cheap bike hire ($5 per day) were just some of the touches which gave the place a warm, home-from-home feel.
Don’t forget to check out Part #2 and Part #3 of my Winelover’s Guide to Camelo, where I’ll be talking you through the three must-see wineries of the region (and one bonus track!). In the meantime, have you tried Uruguayan wine? Why not tell us all about it in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This post wouldn’t have been possible without the unforgettably warm hospitality of the winemaking community of Carmelo who provided an excellent introduction to the wines and stories of this charming corner of Uruguay. I’d like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those who took the time to answer my endless stream of questions and allowed me an authentic glimpse into the life of the Carmelo winemaker. As always, all opinions expressed in this article are my own.
 Background information taken from Daniel Cis Godoy’s chapter on the “Southwestern Region” in “Guía Racimos del Uruguay: 2014” edited by Greg de Villiers and Juan Vázquez.