‘Today, man does not govern the forces he has unleashed, but rather, it is these forces that govern man. Because we do not come into this planet simply to develop, just like that, indiscriminately. We come into the world to be happy. Because life is short and it slips away from us. And nothing is worth what life is worth and this is what is elemental’.
Jose “Pepe” Mujica, President of Uruguay 2010-2015
Humility, simplicity and openness are the three much-revered pillars of Uruguayan culture. Here time is a generous, abundant resource. There’s always a moment to drop in on a friend, head off to the beach with all the family, or make that long phone call to your mum. Uruguayans seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s important in life; in the words of their beloved former president, Pepe, we’re here on earth “to be happy”.
Naturally living in a beautiful wine region does make it a bit easier to obey Pepe’s maxim. A couple of weeks ago we visited the sleepy Uruguayan town of Carmelo which has more than it’s fair share of happy people (here’s Part 1 of my Wine Lover’s Guide to Carmelo). In this post I’m going to fill you in on our rather soggy first day amongst the vines.
We begin our blearily-early journey in Tigre, a subaquatic town located in the Paraná Delta named for the jaguars who once roamed the region. From Tigre’s tiny international port it’s a two and a half hour ferry trip over to Carmelo through the maze of waterways and islands which make up the Río de la Plata river system. I’m no good at early morning starts, and despite my pretty decent nap on the boat, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open in the passport queue. First activity in Carmelo? To find our accommodation, the Ah’Lo Hostel Boutique, and take a nice long sleep in the wonderfully comfortable bed.
Fortified by the slumber and a couple of giant Uruguayan empanadas, we set off for our first winery visit. We’re feeling confident; the hostel staff had given us the only two bikes without punctures and handed us a map which didn’t actually show our destination. The map does, however, feature an intricate series of symbols and arrows designed to lead us to the winery. It’s very easy to find, they promise, just twenty minutes down the road. So far so good.
Then it starts to rain. Now being from England/Wales, we adopt the foolishly optimistic position that the rain will probably stop soon. Probably. Very soon. Any moment now. It doesn’t. The rain becomes harder and more persistent. After some forty minutes of cycling we stop. Could we have missed it? We’d passed some vines a few minutes ago. Or maybe we weren’t on the right road at all? There haven’t been any road signs since we left town. We’re approaching a slight hill. Let’s do 100 metres more, then head back to town. We crest the hill, rain driving into our faces. I’m just considering if this is what Pepe meant by “elemental” when we spot a glorious sign which reads “Bodega El Legado 700 metres”. I nearly fall off my bike in a mixture of relief and excitement; happiness, I reflect, can come from very simple things like no longer being wet or lost.
Moments later we’re admiring the winery’s antique gun collection. The charismatic owner of Bodega El Legado, Bernardo Marzuca, explains that his uncle had collected old Colts and hands around a hand grenade now converted into a handy cigarette lighter. These symbols of a bygone age embody a key tenet of Uruguayan life; family is immensely important. In Spanish the name of Bernardo’s winery, El Legado, means “legacy”, for in this place his family and the land are one. From 1968 Bernardo’s father made wine and grew crops here until the 1982 financial crisis in Uruguay forced the family to sell half of their land and rent out the remainder.
After a period of great difficulty for the family and the loss of his father, Bernardo dreamed of once again making wine here. Bernardo suggests we take a look at the photo album left on the table for visitors to peruse. There are photos of the extensive restoration work he carried out on the house and cellar, but also numerous shots of his three sons, playing in front of the previously-dilapidated structure which now hosts the cellar and a cosy tasting lounge. The photos are a perfect emblem of El Legado, depicting a moment where past, present and future collide in the remaking of a legacy.
In 2011 Bernardo achieved his dream; using old vines planted by his father and others he planted in 2008 El Legado produced its first vintage. Family is essential to every aspect of the winery; Bernardo and his wife receive all visitors to the bodega personally, and come harvest time the family gathers at night to bring in the grapes to ensure perfect freshness in the fruit. Bernardo’s setup is refreshingly simple, consisting of an old French press, a couple of stainless steel tanks, a basic bottling machine and a small cellar of French and American oak barrels. Here it’s the quality of the fruit and the passion of the family which shines through rather than fancy winemaking equipment.
Out in the vineyards Bernardo uses a rather unusual training system for some of his vines, the Vertical Cordon system. This helps the grapes to mature more quickly in this tricky damp climate, but he also likes this pruning technique because it is very rarely used in Uruguay. His vineyards contain a healthy amount of Tannat, Uruguay’s flagship grape, but Bernardo is also experimenting with Syrah and Marselan, which is very popular in the Languedoc region of France. In the next few years Bernardo has plans to double El Legado’s production from the tiny 4500 bottles per year currently produced to a modest 10,ooo bottles. He’s also started work on a brand new cellar to house all that wine, and wants to build three small cottages to accommodate guests.
We finish our tour in the best possible way; a tasting of Bernardo’s gorgeous wines in front of a roaring open fire. This is probably the real reason, I reflect, why the people of Uruguay are so happy. They celebrate the simple, good things in life. The Syrah Reserve 2013 immediately takes me back to our wet journey to the winery; it’s like a fragrant herb garden after rain. Rosemary, oregano and juniper berries mingle with fresh cherries, redcurrants, raspberries and blackcurrants. There’s also elements of the warming flames behind us; woodsmoke, tobacco and a touch of tar. Thanks to Carmelo’s relatively cool maritime climate it’s elegant and surprisingly light in the mouth.
After the smoothness of the Syrah the Tannat Reserve 2013 is like being blasted with a water cannon. Bernardo smiles knowingly and explains that drinking Tannat is a bit like a cat scratching your throat! He’s been drinking Tannat since the tender age of 3, which is not surprising given Uruguay exports a mere 10% of the 100 million litres of wine it produces annually. That’s a lot of wine to get through when your total population is just 3.4 million!
Bernardo explains that Uruguayans are used to drinking this austere, almost tart style of wine which reminds me of classic bitter Italian liqueurs like Fernet and Cynar which are hugely popular in this part of the world. It certainly is an acquired taste, but one reason for Tannat’s popularity has to be that Italian connection. As with Argentina, this is a nation which received huge numbers of Italian immigrants who imported familiar tastes of home to their adopted country.
Tannat is so-named for it’s robust tannins which makes this wine a fantastic match for foods high in protein and fats which bond with the tannins and soften up the wine. Fortunately, Bernardo has provided a delicious picada of local meats and cheeses to show off this wine at its best. It would also be absolutely gorgeous with roast lamb or a smoky barbecued steak, both common dishes in this heavily carnivorous country.
Bernardo invites us to extract the final wine from the barrel ourselves; an inky blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Syrah which spends 2 years in oak. For a moment I’m lost for words; the wine has such a depth of flavour, those herbal notes, some fruit and plenty of spicy character from the oak. It’s magnificent, but not yet ready. Luckily, here in Uruguay, time is plentiful. I guess I’ll just have to pop back in 5 years or so to see how it’s coming along…
Want to know more? Here’s Part #1 and Part #3 of my Winelover’s Guide to Camelo, where you’ll find everything you need to know about this up-and-coming Uruguayan wine region. 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 Bernardo Marzuca of Bodega El Legado and other members 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.