They say that Ulysses, sated with marvels,
Wept tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca,
Green and humble. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not marvels.
Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
Lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
Verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
De verde eternidad, no de prodigios.
From “Ars Poetica” by Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges
Some people like to compare Uruguay’s Carmelo wine region to Tuscany. Those people have clearly either never been to Tuscany or they forgot to spit at one too many wine tastings and can’t actually remember what Carmelo looked like. Either way, they are wrong. There are no majestic medieval towns perched perilously atop steep hills here. To be brutally honest, it looks more like southern England than Italy.
Tucked away in the south-western corner of Uruguay, Carmelo is a “green and humble”, rain-kissed land. In these parts the countryside is largely flat and occasionally interrupted by gentle feminine curves that even the least fit cyclist can overcome. Including myself. Today I’m going to fill you in on the second and final day of our cycling adventures in Carmelo with Part 3 of my Wine Lover’s Guide to Carmelo (here’s Part 1 and Part 2).
Fueled by a traditional Uruguayan breakfast of facturas (mini pastries), toast and a gulp of really strong coffee, we saddle up for a leisurely 40 minute cycle to our first vinous visit of the day; a 10:30am appointment with Enologist Daniel Cis at Carmelo’s newest winery, Campo Tinto. In addition to their winemaking activities, the site offers several comfortable rooms and a cosy restaurant which focuses on local produce paired with literal kilometre-zero wines. Daniel, who’s probably Carmelo’s busiest enologist with some 4 or 5 wineries calling on his expertise, explains that they collaborated with another of his employers, the nearby Bodega El Legado, to produce the first wines from Campo Tinto’s grapes in 2012. Visiting Carmelo’s smaller wineries, you get the sense that winemakers here are like a big extended family, much like the tiny nation of Uruguay itself; everyone knows everyone else, and they truly understand that working together beats competition when it comes to boosting wine tourism to the area.
Campo Tinto only produced it’s very own first vintage last year, but it’s already making waves. Their Tannat Reserva 2012 was awarded the distinction of Best Wine of Carmelo by the well-regarded Guía Racimos del Uruguay. Production is currently at around 15,000 bottles a year, with a focus on Uruguay’s vinuous behemoth, Tannat. In the winery’s cute tasting room, warmed by a crackling open fire, we sample their 2014 and 2015 Tannat Reservas and a chewy Gran Reserva straight from the barrel. These wines are serious stuff, dense, highly tannic, and deeply evocative of the oak which gives them life. Daniel points out that at Campo Tinto they tend to use more American oak since it gives Tannat the expressive aromatic character the grape variety often lacks. Allow them some years of beauty sleep, and these wines will repay you richly for your patience.
What really catches my tongue and my imagination, though, are Campo Tinto’s newest ventures; this year they’re producing a couple of hundred bottles of Viognier and plans for a sparkling wine are in the works. Daniel draws us a Viognier sample fresh from the barrel. It tingles, zips and dances on the tongue like sharp grapefruit with a dash of sumptuous cream. It’s a world apart from the Tannat. I ask Daniel his opinion of the future of Carmelo’s wines; will Tannat continue to dominate or will we see more of these delightfully crisp whites? He laughs and comments that the region’s climate probably favours whites, although his colleagues would probably kill him if he admitted it. Sorry Daniel, looks like your little secret’s out now!
Narbona Wine Lodge
Halfway to our next appointment we realise we’re being followed. Right behind us, always just in sight, is a huge lollopy beige dog. We try cycling at top speed, shouting Spanish commands, and simply ignoring her. No luck. She’s still there when we pull up, puffing hard and probably blue in the face, at the entrance to Narbona Wine Lodge. Well, it’s always good to make friends with the locals, right?
Narbona is a destination in its own right. Gorgeous guest rooms overlook the vines and there’s an exquisite restaurant set in a characterful former general store. The restaurant is supplied by the cornucopia of products they make onsite or at their nearby dairy farm; there’s everything from bread, jams and a typical local caramel known as dulce de leche to a range of delicious cheeses, olive oil, grappa and, of course, wines.
Our guide to this gourmet paradise is the assistant winemaker, Tomas Pascazi, who started out in the kitchen here at Narbona. With a background in biochemistry, he was soon recruited by Narbona’s enologist, Valeria Chiola, to help out in the lab and learn the ropes. Tomas explains that the lodge is named after Juan de Narbona, an immigrant from Aragón who owned this land in the late 1700s. The current owner is Argentine businessman Eduardo Cantón who bought the place in 1990 after it had been abandoned for twenty years. In 2010 they constructed a stunning, cathedral-like new cellar from the local limestone rock which dominates the vineyard soils here; look closely and you can spot ancient seashells indented in the walls.
Tomas ushers us down into the atmospheric old cellar sample the winery’s wares amongst the hanging cured hams, old barrels and stacks of maturing wines. The real surprise of the visit is a firm Tannat Rosé which bursts with soft red fruit and a hint of vanilla from the four months it spends fermenting in third-use French oak. There’s a decent structure here which would stand up well to grilled tuna steak, or the gorgeous brie provided by our generous host.
We taste a delicate 2013 Pinot Noir which just melts away on the tongue, and their Tannat Roble 2010 which screams rubber, leather, bitter chocolate and a touch of sweet raspberries and blackberries along with Tannat’s characteristically high tannins. Luckily it’s Narbona cheese to the rescue; unctuous goats cheese and parmesan are on hand to round off that tannic edge. In case you hadn’t yet realised, Tannat is a wine which needs food to perform at its best. We finish off with a taste of the Tannat Roble 2013 just before it is bottled. It’s the perfect opportunity to observe the importance of weather conditions for the Carmelo winemakers; thanks to a summer with less rainfall, the 2013 has riper fruit than the rather austere 2010. It’s a strikingly different wine. As we leave Narbona, I think I’m starting to get the hang of Tannat. It’s like an eligible bachelor; rich, dark and handsome, improved with age, and always in need of some hearty sustenance.
Almacén de la Capilla
On the way back to Carmelo, we stop off at the region’s oldest still-functioning winery, Bodega Cordano, which was founded in the 1870s by a certain Señor Cordano from Genoa. Something of a touristic curiosity shop, the winery features an old general store known as the Almacén de la Capilla which sells a wide range of local preserves and olive oils. The vineyards are currently tended by the fifth generation of the Cordano family who produce rustic but pleasant Moscato, Tannat rosés, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat. Maturation happens right under the shop in a cellar reached by a worryingly rickety staircase which looks as if it also dates right back to 1870.
Unsure of the construction safety standards in place in the 19th century, we quickly retreat to sea level and purchase a glorious golden bottle of olive oil from the renowned local producer Olivar del Virray which has scooped numerous international prizes for its Extra Virgin oils. Before we leave, we check with the guide if it will be ok for us to take the oil back to Argentina. “As long as you don’t open it, it should be fine,” she says, gesticulating wildly with her hands. It’s a gesture we recognise well from living in South America for a while. Roughly translated, it means something like “well, to be honest absolutely anything could happen, but most likely the police/customs officials/government/whoever is supposed to be in charge won’t care.” Turns out she was spot on. Even my orange, supposedly a forbidden fruit, made it through the sensors.
Want to know more? Here’s Part #1 and Part #2 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 Daniel Cis of Campo Tinto, Tomas Pascazi of Narbona Wine Lodge 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.