There is nothing like starting a day knowing that the only thing you will be doing is tasting wine! Yep, that was the mission on Monday when I took the surprisingly efficient Buquebus hydrofoil to Colonia, Uruguay. I checked in at the Buquebus offices at 7:30 and within 15 minutes, I had received my ticket, passed through Argentine immigration, Uruguay immigration and found the lounge to relax and have some tea before boarding. The trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia took just about an hour and fifteen minutes.
Once we crossed the River de la Plata and I disembarked, I met Damien Piñon from Borrovino Wine Tours who would be escorting me, Jody from Florida and Kevin from London on a tour of two wineries in the nearby Carmelo wine region about 66 km from Colonia (41 miles). (And Jody turned out to be a hoot. I think she has travelled more than me so we had a massive amount in common as we chatted about our various trips and life in general. Great gal.)
Anyway, the drive took us through the rolling hills outside Colonia, past huge cattle farms (Uruguay’s largest export is beef) and vineyards, before reaching Familia Irurutia, one of the area’s largest wineries. The family has been in the business of making wines since 1913 when the Irurutia brothers came to Uruguay from the Basque region of Spain. And their wine making business subsequently became a huge success. Familia Irurutia produces over 100,000 bottles of its Gran Reserva wines and over 1,000,000 bottles of other wines annually.
Now the winery was something else. A living museum to the winery’s history and its four generations who have made wine their life’s work. There were old cars, including an old Ford truck used to transport grapes, a very rare model T Ford, old machinery used in the early days to make wine, and old baskets and barrels, once the mainstay of the winery. We saw an old cellar where wines, long past their prime, are stored as an ode to the past, and we visited the winery store where we saw the winery’s various wines for sale.
However, the best part of the visit was the tasting. We tasted three wines: a Viognier (a white aged in an oak barrel for 6 month), a Río de la Plata Gran Reserva Tannat (a full bodied red aged for 18 months in an oak barrel), and a Rio de la Plata Reserva blend of Tannat and Syrah (a red aged in the bottle for 6 months). And as part of the tasting, we were served local cheeses, meats, olives and little kabobs of meat, cheese and tomatoes.
We started with the Viognier and moved on to the Tannat and then the blend. Damien poured each wine for us and provided us with some information on each of the wines we were tasting. The Viognier is a white wine grape that originated in the Rhône Valley in France. The Tannat also originated in France, but is now one of the primary grapes used in Uruguay wines and is considered the “national” grape of Uruguay. And of course, the blend contained a Syrah grape (as well as the Tannat), which is found all over the world.
I thought all three wines were really good. The Viognier was similar to a Chardonnay, but was not oaky like many California and Washington chardonnays. The Tannat was fruity, but not sweet. And the blend was superb with a big fruity taste and a really light hint of spice. (For some reason, Kevin thought the two reds tasted like merlots, but Jody and I thought the wines had unique flavours of their own.). All three wines were terrific and could easily match up to some of the good wines from home.
So after some lovely conversation and, of course, the wine tasting, we hopped back into Damien’s car for the short drive through Carmelo to the absolutely gorgeous Bodega El Legado, a boutique family winery that produces just 6,000 bottles of high quality wines from vineyards in its own backyard. The word “El Legado” means legacy and is named such as a reminder of the family legacy and the importance of the father of Bernardo (the owner) who ran a small shop in town. Bernardo began the winery as a result of his passion for wine and has morphed into one of the top boutique wineries in Uruguay in just 10 short years. The winery was even featured in a New York Times article in September 2014.
The winery grounds were lovely with rose bushes fronting each row of grapes. (Rose bushes are used to detect pests that could harm the grape vines). There was a swimming pool for visitors as well as a barbecue area for asado (grilled steaks over a wood fire).
The wine making area was really fascinating as the family continues to make their wines by hand. While they use machines to take the stems off the grapes, the filling, corking and labeling processes are done manually using labor intensive machines.
We then went inside the bodega (Spanish word for cellar), which was filled with antiques, musical instruments and old oak barrels. We toured the downstairs cellar which was immaculate and even had a storage area for wines made by Bernardo for an American who owns vines a few km away.
After the tour, we met two of Bernardo’s three sons, Sebastian and Juan. The youngest son is just 12 and was in school. We also met the darling Luna, who only wanted some lovings (OK and maybe some handouts).
After meeting the family (except Bernardo who was not around), we then sat down at a lovely table overlooking the pool area. (The weather had turned sunny so the view was perfect.) Sebastian brought us a huge charcuterie platter with sausage, cheese, bread, olives and nuts. Damian then introduced the wines. We would be tasting a 2016 Reserve Syrah, a 2016 Reserve Tannat and a 2015 Grand Reserve blend of the Syrah and Tannat aged in oak for over two years.
Now, I have never been a Syrah fan, too spicey, but this Sarah was fantastic. The wine was smooth, with a hint of spice and lots of fruit. And the local cheese from the charcuterie platter was simply perfect with the wine.
The Tannat was good as well, but by far the favourite of the day was the 2015 Grand Reserve blend of the Syrah and Tannat grapes. The wine was smooth and flavorful and met my ultimate test … great legs. The wine could easily sell for $50 or more in the U.S., but we could buy the wine for $30 per bottle (and of course, I bought a bottle and will hope for the best as it is transported in my checked luggage).
And the best part of the wine tasting … we were allowed to fill our glass from the actual oak barrel in which the wine was still aging. Talk about a cool experience.
Now we sat and ate, drank and chatted for far longer than we probably should have, but it gave us the opportunity to meet Bernardo who arrived just as we were getting ready to leave. We spoke to Bernardo about his wines, with Damian translating, before we made our wine purchases and picked up to leave.
And I have to say, this family was about as nice as they come. While they spoke limited English, their huge smiles said it all. The family obviously has a passion for wines, and the quality of the three wines we tasted was evidence of the passion. And the huge bonus is that they are building a small boutique hotel on the site so I am sure these folks are going to become more and more well known. Their hospitality is second to none so I can only imagine what a stay in a boutique hotel run by the family would be like. This was an absolutely gorgeous, quaint winery and fantastic family. (I only wish they exported to the U.S., but with such a small vintage, they sell out before they export.)
We sadly left the bodega and headed back to Colonia. Now while we were supposed to be back to Colonia by 2:30, our happy little group had stayed so long at Bodega El Legado winery, it was already past 4:00 p.m. when we arrived back to Colonia. Fortunately, Kevin was staying in Colonia and Jody and I were on the 8:15 p.m. boat back to Buenos Aires so we had plenty of time.
Once we said goodbye to our fabulous host, Damien, Jody and I took a walk around the Colonia old quarter. Colonia is one of the oldest towns in Uruguay having been founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and occupied as a fort for decades. The Spanish and Portuguese repeatedly fought over the fort, which was a strategic location for trade. In 1750, the Portuguese agreed to cede the fort to the Spanish and in 1777, the Spanish took control of the fort for good. Today, the old historical quarter is a UNESCO world heritage site, but the importance of the little town of 27,000 people has faded as the capital of Montevideo has assumed primary importance in the tiny country.
We wandered the narrow and very rough cobble stone streets of Bario Historico, which were lined with spring time blooms. (Remember that Uruguay is south of the equator so this time of the year is springtime.). We did a little shopping as we took in the the historic center’s two main squares, Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo, which contained the ruins of the old Portuguese governor’s house, and Plaza de Armas, where some mate loving hippies were hanging out selling macrame jewelry embedded with stones.
We walked past Uruguay’s oldest church, Iglesia Matriz, which dates to 1680, as well as the ruins of the 17th century Convento de San Francisco within which Colonia’s large 19th-century lighthouse was erected.
We ended our little tour of the Barrio Historico, by walking down Colonia’s most famous street, Calle de los Suspiros, or the Street of Sighs. The street is about a block and half long of rough, rough, rough cobblestones and bordered by old painted buildings. There are two stories about why the street is named “Street of Sighs”. The first is that the houses along the street used to be brothels so you can use your imagination for the resulting name. The second is because prisoners were brought along the street before being put to death on the waterfront. Either way, the street is a featured part of this world UNESCO heritage site and the view from the street is often featured in travel magazines.
After the walk around the town, Jody and I stopped for a beverage at Charco bistro (and actually part of the hotel I was going to stay in until I decided to take the late night boat back to Buenos Aires). Anyways, we sat and had a drink as the thunder and lightening began to make its way towards Colonia. By just after 7:00 p.m., the skies had opened up and we had to walk back to the ferry terminal in the pouring rain. Fortunately, the walk was short. And while the ferry departure was late, the Captain made up some time and we docked shortly after 10:00 p.m.
Jody and I shared a cab back to Palermo where both of us were staying. Sadly, Jody was leaving for Patagonia in the a.m., but Facebook would allow us to stay in touch. In the mean time, I needed some sleep.