The drive from La Barra to Punta del Este is scenic and serene, its coastal vistas reminding me of Baja California’s Cabo San Lucas, but my blissful reverie is rudely halted by a billboard whose central image is frightfully familiar. A man of orange-haired, reptilian hue bellows (fortunately only in print): “Punta del Este is a unique place with the perfect blend of natural beauty, sophistication and exclusivity.” That’s one Donald J Trump, indicating I’ve passed Parada 9 y ½ Playa Brava, site of the Trump Tower here on the southeastern coast of Uruguay.
I flew 30 hours here for this? He isn’t wrong about that word “exclusivity”, though, since I’d heard about the one-percenters from Argentina and Brazil flocking to this spot for nice chunks of the nearby real estate. Bare plots of land for that dream home in the vicinity of Jose Ignacio, the beach town where I’m staying, start at US$450,000, yet this ride I’m on is merely the opening act.
The headliner is my final destination, Bodega Garzón, a 45-minute drive away near the little town of Pueblo Garzón. No expense was spared during the six-year construction of this 200,000-square-foot winemaking and wine-tourism temple, which from a distance resembles a lavish hotel retreat inserted into the rolling hills of Tuscany. I’m privileged to preview it before the official opening, perfectly timed in early March when the harvest has just begun, the Tannat grapes that make for Uruguay’s signature wine about to be picked for the 2016 vintage. Bodega Garzón is the newest of the country’s 180 wineries and the brainchild of founder Alejandro Bulgheroni, widely considered “the richest man in Argentina”, whose business interests also includesw Blends, a collection of wine estates in Australia, California, France and Italy.
The winery itself aims to be the first in the world to seek LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) Certification, which will confer an exalted “green” status for the use of sustainable, renewable energy. “We wanted to keep the biodiversity of the area, so within the site there were sectors that we completely protected during construction,” Carlos Hartmann, the project’s lead architect, tells me during a walking tour of the premises. The original designs were by the Argentinian firm of Bórmida & Yanzón, but Hartmann, himself hailing from Buenos Aires, took over as “director of construction” after a split over creative differences. “There were 15 native species of plants that we developed as part of sustainability and very little irrigation on the roofs – we pump in water from our own reservoir.”
There was also the small problem of convincing the local Uruguayans. “The construction industry here, it took time to convince people that it could work,” he admits. “A lot of them hadn’t worked on projects that were planned to be sustainable. I made sure everyone knew there were no short cuts – you were either with me or not – and I had to figure out who would work with me and who would bail out, because they thought my ideas were crazy.”
Crazy? The building itself is built on, and often cut around, natural rock formations, while the vinification areas are located underground, and over the next two days my mind fixates on rows of fermentation tanks handsomely encased in concrete (for the premium wines and apparently modelled on Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux). I also marvel over the use of optical grape sorting, whereby each grape is lovingly photographed to discern quality during the sorting process, a beacon of Instagram hagiography that in all Uruguay is found only here.
Bulgheroni, the financier him-self, has the grey-haired and dis-tinguished look of the oil tycoon he actually is. He waves his hands in mock dismissal when I suggest that the old joke applies here, how the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one.
“You do need a lot of money to do this,” he concedes, “but you also need to feel a lot of emotions about what you’re doing. What attracted me to wine was the lifestyle. In 2006, I bought these lands because they looked quite interesting. Then I met the Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini in 2007 and sent him maps, so he could study the cartography of the land and the soils. He said there was good drainage in the soils and good wine could be made here. I was then 60 years old and decided to do it, to not waste time.”
That was eight years ago and Bodega Garzón now releases 500,000 bottles a year, from a generous 240 hectares under vine. The first vintage was 2009 and until 2014, all the wines were made from cellars located at the nearby olive-oil plant, Colinas de Garzón, also owned by Bulgheroni’s company Agroland SA. In comparison, Alto de la Ballena, the oldest wine estate in Punta del Este, has a mere 8.5 hectares and produced its first vintage in 2005.
“In my opinion,” the wines from Bodega Garzón are made for a more ‘international’ palate,” says Alvaro Lorenzo, the former lawyer who started and still runs Alto de la Ballena. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. They have the potential to put Uruguay on the map, which can only be good for the rest of us.”
Sure, but some 80 percent of Bodega Garzón’s grape plantings are Tannat, so it could mean betting the farm. As a grape variety, Tannat is an acquired taste because of its naturally harsh tannins, and Alberto Antonini was clearly courted to avoid disaster. Formerly chief winemaker at Antinori in Tuscany during the mid-’90s and ranked “one of the world’s top five wine consultants” by Decanter in 2015, he advises Bodega Garzón’s resident winemaker Germàn Bruzzone and agronomist Eduardo Felix. “The image of Tannat has been a bit negative in the world market,” he notes. “Consumers don’t like the rustic, rough tannins. Our job is to make Tannat a more drinkable wine.”
Originally from Madiran in southwestern France, Tannat was brought to Uruguay in the 19th century by Basque settlers and today, under regulation, a wine has to have at least 85 percent Tannat to be called so; most producers add a dash of Merlot or Cabernet Franc to tame the tannins, along with the use of American oak. (Alto de Ballena does this, but differently, producing a unique and lovely Tannat-Viognier blend.)
Antonini is more old school, preferring to ferment with natural yeast, then ageing the wines in large casks. “Not small barrels, which exist because the market wants oak, but why infuse the wine with oak when you already have such a special terroir? Why make your wine just for the market? I don’t like what I call ‘the Bordeaux colonisation of wine’, how it has made everything homogeneous.”
I spy some kind of predatory bird circling the panoramic expanse of vines, and can sense his eagle-eyed mission – “to understand this place and to make the wine that can best express this terroir. What makes Bodega Garzón unique is what we have here, a lot of energy and tension in the vines.”
Hence the planting of grapes in small plots, each sector allocated later its own respective fermentation tank, the kind of precision winemaking that results in the Bodega Garzón 2013 Reserve Tannat with its enticing aromas of chocolate and tobacco. The tannins are, I found, still slightly grippy but soften when paired with a beef entrecôte.
My real surprise is his deliciously floral 2015 Albariño, unusual since Albariño is normally associated with Galicia in Spain and parts of northern Portugal. I also drink passable versions of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and even a Pinot Noir rosé, but agree with him that his Tannat and Albariño are the best of the wines. “Why does the Albariño work here?” he shrugs. “Ask the Albariño!” The 35 years he’s spent making wine have mellowed him somewhat, enough to spout such minimalist truisms. Since Uruguay is, unlike its samba-mad neighbour Brazil, a land of more understated mystique, would he promote in similar manner his Tannat?
“Yes, let’s not try to explain everything,” he quips. “Let’s leave some things mysterious.”