Alto de la Ballena is a boutique vineyard, set in the mineral-rich hills of eastern Uruguay, a short drive from the coast. They were the very first Maldonado winery in an area nowadays considered Uruguay’s most exciting wine region. And you get to do a wine-tasting with the wine-makers overlooking the Laguna del Sauce.
Paula Pivel and her husband Alvaro weren’t even wine-drinkers until their late twenties. But after a South African wine-tasting they were hooked. They joined a wine club, then started holidaying in wine destinations. In the late 1990s, looking to buy land, they wanted the investment to pay for itself and decided to start a vineyard and focus on high-end wines and wine tourism. They took almost a year to choose the land which today has twenty hectares (almost 50 acres) and eight hectares planted with five varieties. They realised that Maldonado’s granite and schist hillsides and the cool maritime evenings were perfect for producing fresh vibrant wines (later discovered by neighbour World’s Top Winery Bodega Garzón).
Since then, Paula and her team have made some of the best wines in Uruguay, introducing unique blends onto the national scene in the process (watch out for the first Uruguayan harvest of Godello in 2024). They produce 50,000 bottles a year and eight labels. In Europe a winery of this size would produce just one or two wines, says Paula.
Alto de la Ballena’s emblematic wine is their Tannat-Viognier blend (15% Viognier). The pairing came through a happy coincidence. The couple had planned to produce a Syrah-Viognier blend inspired by the Côte-Rôtie region in France. However the half hectare of Syrah planted didn’t produce a harvest that year so they decided to experiment with Tannat. They produced very few bottles but people loved it. Since then this full-bodied Tannat which appeals to all palates has been the Alto calling card. Paula confesses in the price range her favourite wine is actually their Merlot. She explains that Uruguay has the perfect terroir—the French term for the combination of soil, climate and human intervention—for Merlot and that those produced in Uruguay can be outstanding.
The South American Wine Guide considers their Cetus Syrah “the best Syrah in Uruguay”.
What you should know
Wine tastings and tours take place on a hilltop deck overlooking the Laguna del Sauce and the sierras Your guides will be Paula or her wine-maker and are in English or Spanish. Your visit is likely to stretch out to two hours or more as you relax, take in the views and enjoy the breeze.
Alto offers multiple tasting experiences from a sunset glass of wine to a private picnic. Here are a few:
- Sierra and sea includes four reserve wines, accompanied by the Alto charcuterie board (cured meats, mortadella with pistachios, olives marinated in extra virgin olive oil and local herbs, olive oils from the region, homemade sourdough breads and rustic biscuits). The premium version includes five wines.
- Sunset wine If you just want to watch the sun go down over the magnificent lake with a glass in hand, this is for you.
- The summertime picnic takes place somewhere secret in the vineyard overlooking the hills and the lake. It includes a charcuterie board and a bottle of wine of your choice.
- Black River caviar masterclass a four step tasting of Uruguay’s premium caviar accompanied by alto Wines.
Prices vary and start at 1400 pesos. Check their website for more details and to book.
Alto de la Ballena
R12 km 16.4, Maldonado Department, Uruguay
International distributors in the USA, Germany, Mexico and Brazil
In Uruguay buy from Tienda Inglesa, Las Vizcarras y Puerta de Hierro. Delivery in Montevideo and Punta del Este also available
Open daily from 10am to 5pm
Reservations recommended but walk-ins are welcome
Photos: Alto de la Ballena