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Fine Uruguayan wines a growing contender in the global market

Article - June 15, 2015

Traditionally characterized by small scale, family-production, Uruguayan wines are growing in stature and becoming increasingly more recognized by wine lovers worldwide

Winemaking in Latin America has traditionally been dominated by the big three countries of Argentina, Chile and Brazil. However, in recent years, the continent has seen the emergence of a fourth player to the industry; Uruguay.

While the tiny nation in fact has a long and deeply rooted history of viticulture – dating back some 150 years to when French-Basque immigrants brought the tannat vine to the country – Uruguay has only been exporting wine in commercial quantities since the 1990s, and only now is it beginning to gain a global reputation for its high-quality produce.

Today there are around 9000 hectares of vineyards cultivated by more than 1,800 wine producers, and according to Inavi (Uruguay’s National Wine Institute) wine exports grew from 1.2 million liters in 2004 to 20 million liters in 2012. Such remarkable growth is largely down to the efforts of INAVI – a non-state public intuition – and its partner organizations, Wines of Uruguay and Uruguay XXI, the government entity which promotes the development of national exports and investment.

In a country where small-scale, family winemaking still dominates the sector, INAVI – originally established in 1987 – has embarked on an energetic and robust process of facilitating the production of higher quality wines through the conversion of Uruguay’s vineyards and wineries. Indeed, INAVI’s focus has been on quality, not quantity. As a result, Uruguay has gained increasing international acclaim for the excellence of its vino with each passing year, leading to the impressive growth in sales around the world.

Uruguayan wines

Tannat has come to be seen as the quintessential Uruguayan grape and wine.  Introduced to the country in the 1870s by Basque immigrants, the vine adapted to the warm yet cooling maritime climate to become a “national variety” – marked by its refreshing acidity.  The bold and full bodied tannat today regularly wins prizes against competition fronted by more established regional rivals. Uruguay also produces other top quality red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and whites such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

The tradition of family production and the high quality of produce is what characterizes Uruguayan wines, believes José Maria Lez Secchi, President of INAVI. Indeed the very nature of the country’s small-scale viniculture is what allows the institute to maintain quality control at its wineries by ensuring the traceability of every bottle produced in Uruguay.

 “Traceability is a challenge we set ourselves four years ago that is now being realized,” explains Mr. Maria Lez Secchi. “Today we have geo-referenced labels which can locate the vineyard which each bottle came from.”

While traceability is a modern innovation, the INAVI Vice President, Juan Andrés Marichal, says that Uruguay’s old-fashioned approach to winemaking is what gives its wines a distinct edge. “Our approach relates to the origin of wine, the old world, and to the great French, Italian and Spanish tradition. This adds value to the product, and that is impossible to assimilate with any marketing strategy, speaking of the family nature of Uruguayan companies.”

However, the INAVI bosses also admit that the test going forward is how to maintain these values while also increasing the country’s presence in international wine markets, where currently neighbors Brazil and the United States are the country’s main customers.

 “The great new challenge of our new generation of winemakers is to improve professionalism in the management of vineyards,” says Mr. Andrés Marichal. “The challenge is also to make the product more accessible to the consumer…our aim is to triple to number of Uruguayan bottles in the world.”

Mr. Maria Lez Secchi adds: “This is a clear and defined objective we have set. It is the sine qua non to be present in various international markets.”

INAVI’s strategy is largely based on developing the country’s brand. An annual Tannat tasting tour of the United States over the past three years has certainly raised the profile of Uruguayan wines stateside, on top of the high recognition the country has been receiving throughout the region.  However, in order to give Uruguayan wines a more global reach, INAVI has worked in conjunction with the government to launch the Uruguay Natural brand.

An initiative by the Ministry of Tourism, Uruguay Natural has been designed to promote the country and its products worldwide – something that INAVI hopes will make its wines more recognizable to global consumers.

“We were the first Uruguayan product to use the branding,” says the INAVI vice-president. “This is an honor, as behind that bottle of wine, behind the quality, is Uruguay.”