The opening scene of the Amazon Prime series, “It Starts with Wine,” doesn’t highlight that quintessential shot of wine pouring from a decanter, nor does it begin with a vintner pontificating all over himself.
Rather, the series’ pilot episode, “Uruguay:Wine’s Best-Kept Secret,” starts with famed chef Francis Mallmann explaining the versatile skill set of a Uruguayan gaucho. Not unlike a Texan cowboy, these guys “look at life very differently; in a way tending to be forgotten in the world,” Mallman explains. The Wine Enthusiast original documentary waxes poetic about this diverse South American country—with its beaches, mountains and pampas (prairies)—which borders Argentina and Brazil, and which has the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its front door. Think Italy with a Spanish accent, Texan ruggedness and a long ass drive from anywhere in the U.S. Although, you can hop a 9-hour flight, and be there in no time.
The second smallest South American country, Uruguay is one of those places that feels familiar, but you can’t quite place the reference. And, its people? Its people are outnumbered by cattle nearly 4:1––thus, the aforementioned gaucho way. I’m of the notion that a person’s worth supersedes the quotient of attractiveness. But, these folks are just plain radiant through and through. It might have something to do with those balmy 70° summer days. Or, maybe it’s the low crime rate. Considered one of the most socially advanced Latin American countries, it’s also the only other country beside Canada to completely legalize cannabis. The food here isn’t fussy, yet so well-executed. If all this is not manna enough, the wine might as well open the heavens and queue the angels right up. Bodega Garzón was the main reason for my visit last fall (spring for Uruguay), as they were my host. Still, to explore beyond the pour proved worthy of more than a glass full.
About the size of North Carolina, Uruguay is fairly easy to get around. I was there for a week, but could have easily spent two exploring the country. Montevideo is the country’s largest city and its capital. Colonized by the Spanish in 1794, it’s a major commercial port and financial district. Stroll through Old Town and you’ll notice grocers, butchers and other shopkeepers who assure this community continues to thrive. Although I could have painted the town red, I had my sights on a different shade, almost burgundy I suppose.
Just under a two-hour drive from Montevideo is the small fishing village turned luxe beach town José Ignacio. Home base for the duration of my stay, Bahia Vik is a creative’s day dream. Uniquely designed by different artists, each room invites respite along José Ignacio’s natural shoreline. The main building features a vaulted ceiling mural of bright hues channeling a modern Michelangelo. There are plenty of works of art onsite, but nothing beats the floor to ceiling windows framing ocean views that would cause Emily Dickinson herself to take notice.
As for the sea…
Steps from the source, Parador La Huella merely coaxes divinity from its silvery waters. Trust me. You may not think you can eat a whole fish by yourself, but you will surprise yourself. Grilled and bathed in olive oil from just down the road, the day’s catch is all you’ll want, but don’t stop there. Ask your server to select a few dishes for the table, including some of the best sushi of your life.
Up the road a piece, Estancia Vik nestles among the native grasses and hillside. It is here on Sunday afternoons a polo match is bound to ensue. The gaucho legend hits your plate at the property’s shining star, El Asador. Named after a traditional Uruguay barbecue, the restaurant serves anything that won’t melt away on the forged iron grill. Sweet breads, tomahawks and blood sausage were a few favorites that one night when we drank straight from the bottle and danced as if no one was looking.
A little more than half an hour drive into Punta del Este, a larger than life sculpture emerges from the beach. Sculpted by Chilean artist Mario Irrazába in 1982, El Mano expresses the ever presence of man in nature. On the other side of town, sea lions await morsels dropped from the fishermen’s boats docked at bay. Reminded of Irrazába’s vision, I smile at the lion who almost poses for his Instagramable moment. Speaking of morsels, there are numerous restaurants in this metropolitan beach community. Virazon offers sweeping port views on their patio with a host of surf and turf options. A must is the octopus, minimally prepared with a healthy drizzle of olive oil. Also, order a Chivito for the table. The country’s national dish, this sandwich is served on a bun and composed of a thin slice of tender cooked beef steak (churrasco), with mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise, black or green olives, and commonly also bacon, fried or hard-boiled eggs and ham.
The small town of Garzón (pop. 198) boasts the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) winery outside of North America – Bodega Garzón. Founded by Alejandro P. Bulgheroni in 2016, it was awarded New World Winery of The Year (2018) by Wine Enthusiast. Today, you can sip and swirl your way through the extensive portfolio by appointment and opt for an array of experiences, including ones with a helicopter ride and even a fire show cooking class with Chef Francis Mallmann’s culinary team.
The Atlantic breeze coupled with the ballast soil and respectful hands of its stewards are key components in making world-class wines. Exploring the more than 500-acre estate, I learn that the 1,000-plus plots assures optimum results for single-vineyard wines like my favorite–Tannat 2017. Uruguay is known for the Southwestern French varietal, Tannat. Traditionally a highly tannic grape, it often calls for a blend to balance its acidity. The Uruguayan terroir softens this wine, producing rich notes ranging from berry and chocolate to tobacco and spice.
Built into the hills, the winery is terraced, utilizing gravity’s full potential. Walking down into the cellar, I’m keenly aware of this as the earth’s moisture drips over wild ferns tucked into the natural granite walls. The tulip-shaped concrete vessels where many of the wines age is reminiscent of the glasses into which they’ll one day be poured. The bottles are hand-turned on a regimented cycle, assuring consistency in an otherwise unpredictable art form.
Wine is food intended to be paired with complementary dishes, and I do just that. Savoring several meals with and by Chef Francis Mallmann, he remarks upon his simplicity: simple ingredients cooked by wood fire. And, while beef definitely receives top billing, seafood and produce play starring roles as well. The grilled pineapple and ice cream is something I’m still working to recreate. You’ll find plenty of inspiration whether at Mallmann’s restaurant Garzon or back at the winery where he partners with Bodega Garzón as ambassador and culinary director of the 120-seat restaurant, with its panoramic views of the vineyards.
A life-long rancher, Bulgheroni envisioned his Uruguayan masterpiece with its vineyards at its core. Still, the wine isn’t the only piece to his intricate puzzle encompassing an area known as Agroland. Within the company’s scope is Colinas de Garzón which set root nearly 10 years ago as something of a “Little Tuscany” to allow for an olive grove and mill. These oils are used in Mallmann’s restaurant along with discerning kitchens around the world, including mine. Like the winery, you may book your Colinas de Garzón experience by appointment.
The gaucho way is equal parts legend, folklore and culture with its notion of horses and cattle, sleeping under the stars and fire cooking. And in this modern world we must take time to savor the simple things. So, break bread together, clank a few extra glasses and for the sake of all things holy look one another in the eye as often as possible.
Until next time, I raise my glass to you all and say, “Salud, dinero, amor, y tiempo para disfrutarlo!”
Cover photo Melissa Corbin
Melissa Corbin is a Tennessee-based freelance journalist in search of those who make their corner of the world unique. You can follow her travels on Instagram @melcorbin. Stay tuned for her special podcast series exploring women of the world who give a damn at corbininthedell.com, or wherever you listen to podcasts.