Guru’Guay thanks Canelones-based real estate developers Balsa & Asociados for making this article possible.
Until now Canelones has had no visibility internationally in English. Together Guru’Guay and Balsa are putting Canelones on the map with a series demonstrating why this Uruguayan department is an unexpectedly interesting place to live, work and visit.
Guru’Guay’s opinions are always our own.
A full half of all of the wineries in Uruguay are located in just one province—the department of Canelones. These wineries were founded often four and five generations ago by European immigrants in a radius rideable by horse from the port of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.
Canelones is known as “Uruguay’s farm”—supplying most of the nation’s fruit and vegetables—and wine. The rich rolling clay soils don’t require irrigation and are cooled by Atlantic breezes. Forty-two million of the 65 million litres of wine imbibed by Uruguayans annually are produced in Canelones.
The land in Canelones was fertile—there was even an excess of nutrients—and it was easy to grow grapes. In fact it was easy to grow anything. But primarily the choice was a logistical one. If you grew wine in Canelones, it would be cheap and easy to transport it to the capital for consumption or to the port.
One winemaker I interviewed for this article recounted how his father proudly told his great grandmother, 102 years at the time, how the family winery was about to export wines “for the first time” to Europe. Only for her to retort waggishly that his grandfather had beaten him to it when he had exported wines to be consumed on the boats going back to the old country in the 1930s.
Canelones geographically wraps itself around the capital of Montevideo and even today it’s where most people live.
How many capitals—or major cities—of the world have a wine region so close to home? Another winemaker noted that Canelones could be compared to Napa Valley and its proximity to San Francisco.
Burgundy soil with a Bordeaux climate
Canelones shares the same parallel with Stellenbosch in South Africa between the 33rd and 34th parallels. Yet the wines of Canelones, and indeed of Uruguay, surprise drinkers with their marked difference to other South American and new world wines.
Argentina and Chile wines grow in high arid areas. They need to be tweaked to taste fresh and not syrupy. In Canelones, grapes grown in clay soils with an abundance of water and ocean breezes have a good natural acidity that doesn’t require correcting.
Studies have equated Canelones with Bordeaux in France, not Mendoza in Argentina. One winemaker told me that though geographically Uruguay wines are from the new world, culturally and in their style, Uruguayan wines closely resemble wines from the old continent.
The importance of tradition—and family—in Canelones wineries
The vast majority of wineries in Canelones are run by fourth and fifth generation winemakers. It’s not unusual to find siblings and their parents, now in their 80s and 90s (it must be the wine!), living on the same estate. Though women have always traditionally played an important role in rural families, today they have much more visibility in the industry. The same goes for younger generations.
One winemaker told me that the biggest difference in his fine wines produced in Canelones and exported to almost fifty countries is the effect of family. “We are wine cooks,” he said, and he ‘cooks’ like his father and his grandfather before him using the same traditions and recipes. Those traditions are what differentiates them from a winery just 10 km away with similar soils.
International visitors to Canelones wineries are thrilled to find themselves personally meeting the wine-makers and running into other family members on a winery tour. One young wine-maker remarked that many of their visitors later send their regards to the family—and therefore winery—dog (she referred to his being “nine harvests” old).
As one winemaker put it, they consider themselves historic wineries who also apply technology.
Wines to try in Canelones
Of course, Uruguay’s signature variety, Tannat, is the number one wine produced in Canelones, however there’s news.
Get ready to try great new varieties which are crossed with Cabernet Sauvignon—marselan with grenache and arinarnoa with Uruguay’s flagship tannat. These varieties have also been adopted in Bordeaux as the French region adjusts to climate change and because they are more suited to humid climates, like Canelones.
Other wines include (but not restricted to)
Reds Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Arinarnoa, Marselan
Whites Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Albariño, Petit Manseng, Torrontés, Moscatel
How to get there
Canelones wineries are all under an hour from Montevideo. However beware that Uruguay has a zero tolerance drink-driving law. This means that you can go with a private tour like Wine Explorers or arrange transport with a winery or go with a designated driver.
In typical egalitarian Uruguayan style where no one should overshadow or outshine the other, signage pointing to wineries is generic and does not include the name of the winery. So make sure that you have your GPS turned on.
Given the proximity of wineries to each other it is possible to visit multiple in one day, but I do not suggest this. Read this article to find out why.
Remember that you are visiting a family, not a business. These things take time. And be ready to discover Canelones—as one winemaker told me, the best kept secret of the best kept secret of South America.
Find out more
- The Guru’Guay Guide to Uruguay: Beaches, Ranches & Wine Country includes ten wineries in detail
- The South American Wine Guide: Uruguay by Amanda Barnes
This article would not have been possible without contributions from: INAVI, Bresesti, Casa Grande, Pisano and Pizzorno.
Photo credits: INAVI
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