Manuel Filgueira: Ninja winemaking in Uruguay

Trained in elite French chateaux but down to earth, Manuel Filgueira is one of Uruguay's top winemakers, producing tiny quantities of exceptional wine through “sheer stubbornness”.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on October 9, 2018

Our friends at the Montevideo Wine Experience brought our attention to Manuel Filgueira and his winery Los Nadies, voting three of his wines into Guru’Guay’s top twenty, including first and third positions. Trained in elite French chateaux, Manuel makes tiny quantities of exceptional wine out of his own home in the city’s El Prado suburb. A character so demanding of his harvest that if there is a problem, he will nix the whole lot.

Winery Los Nadies Uruguay (5)

One would imagine Manuel to be some sort of brooding iconoclast, hidden away in his cellar. Yet upon making the short trip to the north of the city, it’s possible to find the winemaker in the front garden of his house on a quiet street, enjoying the sun, calling out hellos to passing neighbours and inviting friends to come ‘round to drink mate. He wears pressed khaki and a long, leather-sheathed knife, gaucho-style, as though used to spending more time in his Santa Lucia vineyard than in the city.

“Chew”, Manuel instructs, offering a leaf plucked from a tree. An agronomist in his past career, Manuel maintains a native, and evidently edible, plant garden to show his guests some of the unique terroir of Uruguay. In spite of near constant humidity, many of the region’s plants have desert adaptations—such as segmented or waxy leaves, menthol flavours and thorns—because every ten or so years there is a sustained drought.

Tannat—the king of a difficult terroir

“The palate of the indigenous people was accustomed to bitter flavours like mate”, Manuel says. Spanish settlers brought sheep and cows to the area and a diet of heavy meaty stews. Many wine grapes were planted, but given local tastes it’s not surprising that Tannat, a sturdy, rustic red varietal, would become the dominant player. “Here Tannat is king,” says Manuel.

Uruguay is not an easy place to make wine. While the country’s intense sunshine helps bring out the fruit flavours of its star grape, Tannat’s tannins need special care to achieve high-quality results. Frosts and other perils make the region one of the most unpredictable and challenging in the winemaking world. Last year, Los Nadies lost sixty percent of their harvest to frost and drought. For the area’s predominantly independent, family producers there is little financial backing to offset dangers, and exports constitute a mere 5% of the market.

“In Uruguay, we are like the Samurai of the vineyards,” grins Manuel, though “that’s not necessarily something to be proud of,” he adds ruefully.

Manuel is the fourth generation of a winemaking family, yet he never expected to make wine a full-time career. Things changed when he was faced with the possibility of losing the family vineyard. His parents—doctors by trade—had been managing the winery, transforming production from table wine to wine of quality. When they decided to sell the vineyard in 2010, Manuel stubbornly refused to sell his share. His grandmother conspired with him to keep the business alive, gifting him her share, leaving him with 17 hectares in total along with the house in the Prado.

The 2011 vintage, Manuel’s first at the helm, was achieved through “sheer stubbornness”, as he puts it. Manuel had tasted the grapes on the vine and found that they were outstanding. He sent out a call to his friends to help him with the harvest and twenty confirmed. Sixty actually showed up. They loaded up a truck with the grapes, not knowing where they would take them. In the nick of time, the Stagnari family offered two tanks. Manuel ended up using one, deciding to ferment both his Tannat and Merlot harvests together. The result was the 2011 Equilibrio.

A wine maker with a mind of his own

Manuel’s friends will tell you that he has always had a legendary semi-magical ability to make things happen.

Jean-Pascal Lacaze, an oenologist the Filgueira family brought from Bordeaux to help professionalise their winemaking, easily befriended the son of his employers while spending time together at the family’s many asados. Just twenty-five at the time, Manuel had recently recovered from a life-threatening illness. “He really inspired me”, says Jean-Pascal. “He is always enjoying life to the maximum. And he always took care of other people”. The doctors had warned Manuel he would never be able to have kids. Jean-Pascal remembers Manuel sharing how he wanted to have his own family and, while he didn’t know how, he would figure out a way. Later, it would turn out the doctors were wrong—Manuel and his wife, Gabriela, would have two children.

In turn, it would be Jean-Pascal who inspired Manuel to study fine winemaking. Even though Manuel had worked alongside his grandfather, spending his weekends as a young man in the vineyard, “I never thought I needed to learn how to make wine”, Manuel says. “I thought it was like making bread, that you only needed to follow a recipe”. After discovering that there was much more to the process, he was motivated to train as a sommelier and then, through his friend’s connections, go to the Bordeaux region of France. He had the opportunity to work with winemakers such as Pascal Marty, oenologist for fourteen years for Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., and behind the closed doors of many exclusive French chateaux.

Regaining the passion for wine

Something strange happened, however. After a time in France, Manuel felt his relationship with wine had become purely intellectual. The act of balancing the characteristics of a wine was less like art and more like ticking boxes in an Excel sheet. “I was in the most incredible place in the world but I wanted to go home”, Manuel says. “I had lost my passion”.

Then one morning during the headiest days of harvest, the order went out to down tools. Why? For the opening of pigeon hunting season. At dawn the owners of several chateaux gathered in a treehouse with a single bottle of Cheval Blanc from the 1970s. To Manuel’s amazement, this exquisite wine was cracked open and served in a chipped old mug which was passed from hand to hand. “Everyone took a sip, just like we drink mate here in Uruguay”, recounts Manuel.

The entire day passed and just two pigeons were downed. Manuel, who was a crack shot, let his impatience get the better of him and he fired, managing to kill a bird from a difficult angle in one shot. Instead of congratulating him, his companions called him all the names under the sun. The morning’s activity had nothing to do with hunting, he realised. It was the sunrise, the company, the cracked cup. A ritual that bonded people together, with wine as its sacrament.

“I want to make incredible wines in the simplest way possible”

Since his days in France Manuel has become fascinated with the role of wine in our culture. You get the sense that his new winemaking endeavour is a philosophical exploration of the subject. “Love, for example, is something basic, yet it is one of the things that most moves a person. Wine is similar. One can find magic in simple things. I want to make incredible wines in the simplest way possible”.

In the vineyard and in the cellar, Manuel’s approach is minimalist. Natural treatments are used on the vines to ward off ants, which can destroy the shoots of thousands of kilos worth of potential harvest in a single night. There’s no irrigation system in place, leaving Los Nadies vulnerable to drought. Only small doses of sulphur are used and he bottles directly from the barrel, after long periods in casks that allow sediment to separate and settle naturally. Hardly the easy, modern way to do business.

Manuel’s strategy takes a different path when it comes to blending. Jean-Pascal brought the French tendency for blending to the family’s winery and Manuel continues the experiment, using Tannat as his base. His Equilibrio is a blend of Tannat and Merlot, and his most limited edition wine, Ímpetu, uses the same with the addition of Cabernet Franc. He is constantly tasting his evolving wines and trying different combinations, searching for what he calls the point of “resonance” where wine surpasses greatness and becomes exceptional. A practice which has little to do with luck.

“Anyone can have a child who is a genius,” Manuel explains. “What is more remarkable is when all the children in a family are distinguished. It’s about having the right form”.

A chance to re-focus on what is truly important in life

Los Nadies, “the nobodies”. Manuel gave this name to his winery as a winking acknowledgement to the fact that nobody in the world knows anything about Uruguay. Or about Tannat, a grape that is otherwise a footnote in the rest of the wine world. Yet Manuel is more interested in growing a community around Los Nadies than attaining global renown. In Uruguay he sells his wines primarily through friends and a very limited number of vendors.

In spite of this, Los Nadies has already begun to form connections outside of Uruguay.

Michelle Parmentier, owner of Australia’s Captains of Trade, an import company known for being the first to bring Malbec to the country, once stopped by to tour Manuel’s vineyard. She and her husband, Dave—also a winemaker—ended up canceling the rest of their meetings that day to stay for the afternoon, sharing lunch and a few glasses of wine with Manuel and his family. When Michelle asked if she could bring Manuel’s wines on board, his requirement was that they come and work harvest with him.

The couple came back a year later, ready to work. Michelle describes how Manuel took the time to explain even the most simple processes and their purpose. More importantly, she came to understand the culture behind the product they were importing. “The people, culture, food and wine in Uruguay is something so unique and different from Australia”, Michelle says. “Our time there was breath of fresh air, a chance to re-focus on what is truly important in life”.

Secondly, Manuel’s wines have found their way to Japan, a connection that he sought to establish as he feels that Eastern philosophy has much to add to the discussion around wine, traditionally emblematic of Western culture.

“The Japanese have a respect for ritual and the search for perfection, and Uruguayans for liberty and pleasure for its own sake. Wine unites the two”, Manuel says, adding that he believes Japan and Uruguay “complement each other well”.

Manuel shows a packaging for his top-tier wine, Ímpetu. The box is hand-made, without nails, the bottle’s paper wrapping hand-written in careful script by his assistant, Valentina, and closed with his grandfather’s wax seal. It is accompanied by two cigars made with tobacco grown near the vineyard and hand-wrapped by a friend. It’s a collective effort of family and friends.

Such a sense of community may be common in Uruguay but it’s something that’s dying out in many places in the world. Manuel insists that it will come back. The future is uncertain but as his friend Jean-Pascal says, “If you are Manuel Filgueira, you can do anything”’.

If the world is lucky, he may just be right.

Manuel Filgueira with his wife Gabriela and their two children
Manuel Filgueira with his wife Gabriela and their two children

Written by Mandy Trilck with Karen A Higgs for Guru’Guay

Find out more

The Very Best 20 Uruguayan wines Los Nadie wines occupy #1, #3 and #8 rankings

Photos: Courtesy of Los Nadies




2 Responses

  1. I needed a good news story. Americans are having such a tough time, its good to hear of an gentle elegant project. We have so much fast buck operators here it good to be reminded that someplace people take pleasure making a nice wine and to enjoy it. and not for a great profit.

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