What do you know about Uruguay? If, like me, your answer is not a lot, it seems we’re not alone. Santiago Deicas tells me that he spends much of the year travelling and has done so for 14 years (he is only 28!). ‘At first I used to spend most of my time just explaining where Uruguay is. Now, however, thanks to sport [the infamous footballer Suárez and the national rugby team – for whom Santiago once played] and our famous out-going president, Mujica, people seem to know a bit more about us. Now I can talk more about wine.’
In the south-eastern part of South America, Uruguay has Argentina to the west and Brazil to the north and east, with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and south-east. Most of the wine production goes on near to the capital, Montevideo, around the 34th parallel, which puts the vineyards on a similar latitude to Santiago and Mendoza, Stellenbosch and the Barossa.
But, Santiago says, forget preconceptions about South American-style wines, ‘Yes, we make wines in a new world style, but they are so different from our neighbours.’ He goes on to explain, ‘In Uruguay we have weather not climate!’ As Brits, we know that this means it’s wet. Uruguay has on average 900–1,000mm of rain a year, with cool, often strong breezes blowing in from the Atlantic, frequent fog; extremes of temperature are rare; it’s essentially a temperate, mild climate. As Society wine buyer Toby Morrhall says, ‘I always feel at home in Uruguay after being in Chile or Argentina… cloud, rain, winds… it feels much more like Europe.’
So it comes as no surprise then that the grape that has become practically synonymous with Uruguay is tannat, the grape of Madiran in south-west France. Santiago says that the Basques, and one Pascual Harriague in particular, brought the grape to Uruguay in the 1870s. They must have known what they were doing as the grape’s thick skin makes it one of the best rot-resistant varieties. ‘Tannat likes humidity but it’s important to plant in well-drained soils,’ Santiago explains, ‘Our land is hilly rather than mountainous but there are lots of different terroirs within a small area, the tannat likes limestone and clay, which we have.’
Santiago goes on to point out that as a variety, tannat ripens relatively late too, ‘this gives us the chance to get perfect phenolic ripeness in the grape … we might have a similar rainfall as south-west France but we have much more sunshine. We usually have humidity right through to harvest which is important because without this the grape skins would shrivel and the tannins in the pips wouldn’t ripen. We nearly always get perfect ripeness in our grapes.’
"You have to harvest at just the right moment, you have to taste the grapes and crunch the pips, if you leave it just a week too late you get wines that are too jammy."
So the combination of old world ‘weather’ and new world sunshine produces, uniquely in Uruguay, wines from a traditionally ‘rustic’ variety, with good balance, that aren’t super-high in alcohol with good natural acidity and fresh aromas. Santiago says that the real secret is knowing when to pick the grapes, ‘You have to harvest at just the right moment, you have to taste the grapes and crunch the pips, if you leave it just a week too late you get wines that are too jammy.’ Santiago points out that this is why it is important to own your own vineyards, ‘the family needs to make the decision about what needs to be done with each plot.’
The Deicas family owns 300 hectares of vineyards (Uruguay’s total area under vine is 8,000 ha) and they are the country’s largest wine producer.
"Santiago's grandmother is 104 - testament to the heart-healthy tannat grape or maybe the bitter maté tea that everyone drinks!"
The company was started by Santiago’s grandfather Juan Carlos Deicas in 1979; he’s in his 80s now but still active on the board of the company. Santiago’s grandmother is 104 – testament to the heart-healthy tannat grape or maybe the bitter maté tea that everyone drinks! Juan Carlos started from modest beginnings but studied economics and was interested in many different things; he was a banker, tax adviser and set up a bus company which he still runs. ‘But he saw the opportunities in the wine industry,’ Santiago says, ‘it’s certainly the business he’s most passionate about even if it isn’t the most profitable!’
Santiago’s father Fernando now runs the company. He studied chemical engineering and travelled widely before returning home with a clear strategy for the wines. In 1982/83 he replanted everything, with the first top-quality wine emerging in 1992.
As well as learning from his own travels, particularly in France and Italy, importantly, Fernando also brought in foreign expertise to Juanicó, taking advice from internationally renowned consultants like Paul Hobbs and Patrick Ducournau. Toby Morrhall explained the significance of Ducournau’s input: ‘The Uruguayans have taken on board Ducournau’s work with the tannat grape more so than the French. He developed a way of using microoxidation to help soften the tough tannins in tannat wines. When you age the wine in bottle, you see the same process, but rather than taking years, this process takes a couple of weeks. The Atlántico Sur Garzón Vineyard Seleccion Especial Maldonado Tannat 2011 shows just how sweet and silky the tannins can become (ref N-UR321, £11.95).
But while tannat is a key variety for the Deicas family and indeed Uruguay, it isn’t all that is grown here. Another interesting variety is marselan, a cross between grenache and cabernet sauvignon developed in Montpellier to have good disease resistance. ‘We are really pleased with the results of this grape, it makes totally dry, pure wines that have that winning combination of perceived sweetness and freshness.’ Santiago says.
Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot are also grown (try the newly shipped Atlántico Sur San José Petit Verdot 2015). The family’s top red, Gran Bodegón is a Bordeaux-style blend and shows just how good the country’s best wines can be (2010, ref N-UR331, £21). The reds are the perfect foil for the excellent local beef.
"We eat beef every day,’ Santiago says,’ We love our asados [barbecues], we have these at least once a week."
‘We eat beef every day,’ Santiago says,’ We love our asados [barbecues], we have these at least once a week.’ Toby and Santiago put the superior quality of the beef down to the fact that the country’s 20 million cows are all free range, ‘the grass isn’t as lush as the Argentine pampas so they have to walk further, it probably makes for leaner, more flavoursome meat,’ Toby concludes.
As for whites, the family produces sauvignon blanc and chardonnay – try the newly shipped Juanicó Benteveo Chardonnay 2015 (ref N-UR441, £7.25) – as well as viognier, sauvignon gris and pinot gris. They also have a lovely freshness and complement the amazing seafood that thrives in the cold Atlantic waters.
The family markets its entry-level and medium-level wines under the Juanicó label while Familia Deicas is used for the top wines. Their premium wine is called Gran Bodegón and shows the potential of this tiny country to make a big splash on the world stage: South American wines with a distinctly European accent, which in this family’s hands at least, are well worth seeking out.
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