When prompted with the phrase “South American Wine” even the most experienced wine lovers will likely call to mind only the wines of Chile and Argentina. Perhaps the most adventurous might have had a wine from Brazil. But very few people have tasted, let alone heard of wines from Uruguay. In fact, a random sampling of adults I interrogated proved that some didn’t even know on which continent Uruguay might be found (some guessed Africa).
Though it languishes in obscurity, thanks in part to the long shadow cast by its neighbor and friendly arch-rival Argentina, Uruguay has been producing wine for well over 100 years, and in the last thirty years, some of that wine has become extremely high in quality. Add to that the charms of the Uruguayan coastline, culture and cuisine, and you’ve got a sub rosa wine destination of epic proportions. Mark my words, Uruguayan wine is South America’s hidden gem.
Simply put, Uruguay is one of the Western Hemisphere’s most remarkable countries. How remarkable? According to global organizations who spend our tax money measuring such things, Uruguay is the most democratic country in South America (and ranks higher than the US in objective democracy scores). It is also ranked #1 in South America for peace, lack of corruption, quality of living, digital government capabilities, size of its middle class relative to the overall population, prosperity, and security.
The unfortunate fact that the Portuguese and Spanish essentially killed or drove out all the native peoples in the 15th through the 17th centuries means that more than 90% of the population are of immigrant descent, which has resulted in a remarkable lack of racial tensions in the country.
On a per capita basis, Uruguay contributes more troops to the United Nations than any other country on earth. It is ranked second in South America for economic freedom, income equality, and per-capita income. Its constitution guarantees religious freedom; it ranks 26th in the world on measures of press freedom (the US is at 46); and it formally legalized abortion in 2012, same sex marriage and cannabis in 2013. Voting in national elections is compulsory, and failure to do so will result in fines and the inability to renew your driver’s license. In 2009 Uruguay became the first country in the world to guarantee one laptop per child in every school. Schools by the way, are free to all citizens from pre-school through university.
Uruguay is a country of 3.4 million people, 12 million cows, and somewhere on the order of 300 miles of beaches. There’s so much open space and land, that Uruguay makes money to planting trees for Europeans looking to offset their carbon emissions. The country runs on as much as 80% renewable energy.
Uruguay’s friendly rivalry with Argentina reaches a fever pitch with regards to which country is the rightful home of the gaucho culture, but its cowboy tenets are so strong that Uruguay famously had a law at one point making it illegal to kill or eat a horse.
Some call Uruguay the Switzerland of South America (apparently the banking laws are also quite favorable to foreign investment) but in a phrase, it’s a sparsely populated little South American paradise.
Especially if you like meat. Uruguayans consume almost twice as much beef per capita than the United States, and their meat is widely regarded as some of the healthiest in the world. Since 1968 the country has had laws in place forbidding the use of hormones on its cows. They are entirely pasture-raised and grass-fed. After an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, the entire country’s beef supply is 100% traceable from farm to store. Any steak on the shelf can be linked back to a specific animal, on a specific plot of land in the country. Interestingly, the same can be said for much of the wine made in the country as well, but more on that momentarily.
Uruguay is famous for its parillas, or wood-fired grills, on which a wide variety of beef cuts are roasted to dripping perfection. Outside of the dense urbanity of the capital Montevideo, which contains more than 50% of the country’s population, every house has a wood fired grill built into their kitchen. Grilling meat is serious business for Uruguayans, and represents the height of their hospitality. Invited guests will invariably be treated to a parade of grilled flesh, beginning with sweetbreads, followed by asado, the country’s famous fatty short-ribs, and then followed by several different cuts of beef and potentially sausage as well. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get some grilled provolone (which can be seen melting like little pats of butter on big iron pans in the photo above).
While colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese initially, Uruguay became a popular destination for Basque and northern Italian immigrants. The Italians, in particular, used the phrase “making America” to describe the process of heading to Uruguay for six months to earn and then heading back home for a spell before returning. These intrepid travelers eventually brought their families and stayed put, resulting, among other things in extremely high quality local pastas, both fresh and dried.
It’s not clear whether this Italian connection has influenced aesthetics as well, but the country also seems to have a great affinity for modernist architecture and design. Especially as you leave Montevideo and head Northeast towards the seaside resorts that dot the country’s Atlantic coast, even the smallest villages are dotted with gorgeous poured cement, rock, and natural wood buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in the most chic wooded communities of Northern California, or Stockholm for that matter. These modernist buildings alternate with the thrown-together fishing shacks you might expect in tiny coastal towns in South America.