Flat green fields, brown dusty country roads, squat bushes of lavender and rosemary. A hundred year old general store on the crossroads. A few old guys hanging out chatting, enjoying the early morning sun. Pale green vineyards, green green grassy embankments teaming with tiny wild flowers.
This is Carmelo. Where the winegrowers are the great grand sons and daughters of Italian immigrants and produce just a few thousand bottles of fine wine a year which they hand bottle and sell to you personally.
No standing on ceremony. No pomposity. This is wine country with the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
It took me sixteen years to get to Carmelo, and how I regret that lost time – and that undrunk wine.
The fine wines of Carmelo
Uruguay is on exactly the same parallel as the best wine producing regions of Argentina, Australia, Chile and South Africa. The climate is slightly warmer than Bordeaux’s.
Carmelo is a synonym for fine wine in Uruguay. There are a number of terroir factors:
The Uruguay and Parana rivers converge just outside the city forming the huge River Plate estuary. Irurtia has named one of its wines Km. 0 (the equivalent of Ground Zero), in homage to the birth place of the River Uruguay.
Carmelo is two or three degrees warmer than Montevideo and Canelones (Uruguay’s largest vine-growing area) so the grapes mature slightly earlier thus avoiding any early frosts.
The soil is very alkaline, with fossils (you can see little shells in the lining of the cellar ceiling at the Narbona wine lodge) producing wines charged with minerals, great for outstanding Pinot Noir.
All this creates a perfect microclimate for vines.
Winemaking was brought to the region over a hundred years ago by European immigrants, several of whose descendants are the wine makers you will meet today.
In the last decade the wine tourism has grown particularly from Argentina and more recently from Brazil and the US following an enthusiastic article on Carmelo in the New York Times in 2014.
Apart from the signature varietal Tannat, amongst others you can find fine wines of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Viognier and Chardonnay. Though new varietals are being constantly explored by these experimental souls.
The wineries of Carmelo
Carmelo is Uruguay’s largest wine-producing area outside of Montevideo and Canelones and characterised by small, family-run concerns.
Carmelo hosts eight boutique wineries. Irurtia is the largest producing 100,000 bottles of fine wine each year whereas El Legado produces just 3,000 bottles per year.
Each vineyard is very different one from the other. Though what they have in common is that the person guiding you around and serving you wine will be the owner or the principal wine-maker and they all have a story.
Ana Paula who you’ll find behind the counter of the Almacen de la Capilla (pictured above), a one hundred year old general store, is descended from Genoan emigres and the first female winemaker in five generations of winemakers. (Uruguay has seen an interesting trend of women winemakers emerging.)
Bernardo of El Legado will show you the land he reclaimed for his family which had been lost during an economic downturn in the eighties where he grows Tannat and Syrah.
Despite the fact that Irurtia is much larger (not only does it produce more fine wine than all the others combined, it produces two million bottles of table wine sold locally), the owner Maria Noel Irurtia still conducts the morning tour and tasting.
In the other vineyards, CampoTinto and Narbona, you’ll be shown around by the wine-makers responsible for making top-class wines that are just entering the US in some fine dining establishments.
Carmelo town – a sleepy river town at the end of a ferry ride from Buenos Aires
Prior to her growing fine wine profile, Carmelo was mainly known to travelers as an alternative point of entry to Uruguay from Buenos Aires. Passengers can take a slow ferry from the Tigre Delta just outside of Buenos Aires.
Still today Carmelo the town remains a sleepy river-side town of 20,000. It celebrated its bicentenary in 2016 with four days of celebrations. It’s the second city in its department as Uruguay provinces are called though it’s actually the departmental capital.
It was originally called Pueblo Carmelo (Carmelo Town). Noone knows for sure what Carmelo stands for as there’s no historical documentation to justify the choice of name. However some locals think that it’s related to visions of the Virgin of Carmen on Mount Carmel.
Things to do and see in Carmelo
Wine tours and wine tasting
You can arrange your own visits to most vineyards in Carmelo. Plan to visit just one or two per day for the most authentic experience.
Familia Irurtia is on the outskirts of Carmelo town. Cordano, CampoTinto and El Legado are all in the Colonia Estrella district a 30 minute bike ride away. You probably need a car to get to Narbona as it is just over 10 km (that’s about seven miles) west of Colonia Estrella or get ready for a much longer bike ride.
As Narbona wine exporter Fabiana Bracco joked, Uruguayan wines may not be 100% organic (though they are probably close to it) but they are 100% orgasmic!
Carmelo swing bridge
The city is known for its bright red rotating bridge which was imported from Germany in 1912. It can be rotated manually by two people if a tall boat needs to move upriver. The bridge takes you out of the town and there’s a sign as you leave which proclaims that anyone who crosses the bridge will always return to Carmelo. Dear reader, this video shows the entire 13 minute process – my intention is for you to get the idea, not watch the whole thing 🙂
Jose Castro wood sculpture planet (I mean, gallery)
I had one of the most inter-galactic experiences of my year in Carmelo. Hidden at the back of a hardware store (yes, seriously) through a little door, you’ll find a thousand wood carvings of scenes of human desire, suffering, banality, and stupidity by Spanish wood artist Jose Castro. It took my breath away. When I returned to reality and the dusty Carmelo streets an hour later, I realised yet again that these are the experiences that make Uruguay unique. (I’ll be writing an article shortly)
Close to Colonia Estrella is the Zagarzazú beach. Like most Uruguayan river beaches it has beautiful fine white sand which is delightful. The river water carries a lot of sediment and is soupy brown in colour, until the sun goes down… and the river turns silver. It’s a lovelier beach than than the Seré beach in town.
Carmelo Golf Club
The Carmelo Golf Club is a par-72 championship, 18-hole golf course. Top 100 Golf Courses named it Uruguay’s best course and some consider it South America’s premier golf course.
So… There’s not a huge amount to do in Carmelo, besides drink wine. Thank god! So that’s what you should plan to do. Visit vineyards, drink wine and relax.
Getting around Carmelo
Carmelo the town is easy to get around on foot.
However Uruguay has a zero tolerance to drink-driving. You literally cannot have a glass of wine and drive. So if you are coming for the wine my recommendation would be to stay in Colonia Estrella just outside of Carmelo along Route 21.
Biking Plan to get to the vineyards by bike. Most hotels rent or offer bikes to their guests for free. If you are staying in Colonia Estrella, you are very short bike rides to most vineyards. Biking from the centre of Carmelo to Colonia Estrella takes 20-30 minutes along quiet roads.
Buses I don’t recommend using buses. They are very infrequent and do not pass by the vineyards. They drop you off at the main roads leaving you with 2-3 kilometres walk to the vineyards.
Taxis Your hotel or vineyard will be happy to call you a cab. A cab from the town centre to Colonia Estrella takes under 10 minutes and costs about 300 pesos (just over 10 USD). Most hotels out of town will pick you up at the station or port free of charge.
When to visit Carmelo
Best seasons Southern Hemisphere spring and autumn can be the best times to visit for optimum temperatures. The leaves fall in May which is particularly lovely.
I’ve been warned that Carmelo is very hot in the summer time with significant insect presence. However mid February is grape-harvesting season and in Carmelo you can get to be part of the process. You can even tread grapes at Almacen de la Capilla (I knowwww!!! Too much… #GottaLoveUruguay).
Best days of the week All year round weekdays are quietest. Argentinians and Brazilians have gotten in on the Uruguayan Tuscan secret earlier than the rest of the world and as neighbours they tend to visit on weekends. Savour the experience of a being the sole visitors in a vineyard by going midweek.
For those on a budget, some hotels have cheaper midweek rates.
How to get to Carmelo
From Montevideo A three hour car ride along empty highways. A 3-4 hour bus ride.
From Colonia del Sacramento A very picturesque one-hour car ride. There are frequent buses.
From Buenos Aires Take the one-hour ferry from downtown BA to Colonia del Sacramento. A more leisurely ride takes you from the outskirts of Buenos Aires (El Tigre) on a two-and-a-half-hour ferry direct to Carmelo. The ride is a across the huge River Plate delta and into the River Uruguay. It’s a lovely way to travel to Uruguay, especially if you are with children. You will need the whole day to take the train from the centre of Buenos Aires to Tigre, and then the two-and-a-half-hour ferry on to Carmelo.
More links on Carmelo
Guru’Guay’s hearty thanks: My visit to Carmelo wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Sylvana Cabrera of ComeryBeber.com for scouting out wonderful locations for Guru’Guay readers, Diego and Ana Paula Cordano of Almacen de la Capilla for providing me shelter in their wonderful little cabin amongst the vines and Mariño Sport, the most trusty rent-a-car in Uruguay. As always all opinions expressed in this article are my own.