Guru’Guay thanks Canelones-based real estate developers Balsa & Asociados for making this article possible. Until now the Uruguayan department of Canelones has had no visibility internationally in English. Together Guru’Guay and Balsa are working to put Canelones on the map with a series demonstrating why this part of Uruguay 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 first immigrants to settle this department—as Uruguayan provinces are known—arrived mainly from the poorer parts of the north of Italy and western Spain (Galicia and the Basque country). They had made wine back home and when they arrived in Uruguay over 100 years ago most headed out on horseback looking for farmland a few hours from the port.
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 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.
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.
(Not all wineries in Canelones are located on clay soils. There are micro-terroirs. However the wines of Canelones are distinct from the wines grown in Camelo to the west and Maldonado to the east.)
In many cases those ‘recipes’ include the infrastructure that has also been passed down through the generations. Wine writers from Europe have marvelled at the continuing use of systems that have not been seen in Champagne for more than a century, that are still in use in Canelones to make sparkling wines. Similarly, many Canelones winemakers continue to use the concrete fermentation tanks built by the first generation. An eighty-year old winery still makes their wine in 80-year old cement tanks. The tanks have been used for eighty harvests and the rough interior is home to the good bacteria of eighty vintages. The tanks may appear quaint or retro but, when you think about it, they are reminiscent of the antique earthenware wine vessels. And there’s a reason. Those aged tanks produce wines that hark back to the Mediterranean—and not the bright wines of stainless steel vats.
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 Download the chapter on Uruguay
This series is sponsored by
TRANSPARENCY CHECK Guru’Guay’s founder is buying a property from Balsa & Asociados. Find out about her experience buying a new build in Canelones and follow her video updates on YouTube.
This article would not have been possible without contributions from: INAVI, Bresesti, Pisano and Pizorrno.
Also to Balsa & Asociados for their support of Guru’Guay series on Canelones for an international audience. This conversation was part of the research for that series.
Photo credits: INAVI