Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Bodega Garzón: Uruguayan Treasures, From Albarino to Tannat

Al pan, pan y al vino, vino.”
This Uruguayan saying literally translates as “To the bread, bread and to wine, wine.” Its deeper meaning refers to something that is said with truth, being frank and upfront. I think this is applicable to the wines of Bodega Garzón, an Uruguayan winery, which seeks to present wines of terroir, not concealed with heavy oak, and sometimes with no oak at all. The truth of the land and the grapes is intended to be revealed within their wines.

I was recently invited, as a media guest, to visit La Bodega By Salts, an Uruguayan restaurant in Watertown, by Alexander Griffiths, a native of Uruguay and the export manager for Bodega Garzón. While enjoying a sampling of the delicious dishes of La Bodega, we tasted a range of wines from his portfolio. All of the wines were delicious and well-made, though of course I had my personal preferences. These are wines that would appeal to most wine consumers and which earn a hearty recommendation.

Alexander and I not only spoke about the wines, but also talked about a myriad of other subjects. He was personable and interesting, and we enjoyed a fun and tasty evening. For some background on Uruguay and their wines, please check out three of my prior articles, which stemmed from a large Uruguay wine tasting several years ago: The Wines of Uruguay (Part 1)The Wines of Uruguay (Part 2), and The Wines of Uruguay (Part 3). I found many intriguing wines at this event, including a couple from Bodega Garzón, thus it was educational to taste their wines now, to see how their winemaking has evolved.

I'll provide a brief update on the Uruguayan wine industry as well. In 2017, the country produced a record-setting 4.6 million liters of wine, a growth of 32% from 2016. Tannat was the most dominant grape used for these wines. Brazil remains the #1 market for Uruguayan wines, constituting about 50% of exports, followed by the U.S. and Mexico. Combined, those three countries represent about 85% of the total export market. And even though the U.S. is the #2 market, Uruguayan wine imports are still relatively small.

Alejandro P. Bulgheroni, an Argentinian, got his start working in the energy sector, including a number of agro-industrial projects. He is currently a billionaire, with a large portfolio of wine interests, currently including approximately 21 estates in six different countries and regions, from Australia to California, Italy to Argentina, France to Uruguay. And it all began with Bodega Garzón.

Around 1999, Alejandro and his wife, Bettina, traveled to the region Garzón and were enamored with the land, eventually deciding to purchase 2200 hectares of land and 2000 hectares of forest. They planted olive trees to produce olive oil, and almond trees, because Bettina wanted them. They also raised cattle, kept bees for honey, and harvested lumber from the forests. Currently, they grow 14 types of olives, almonds, blueberries and pecans.

Alejandro eventually decided he also wanted to grow vineyards and produce wine, so he purchased more property, about five miles from his current properties. This estate, composed of many rolling hills, is located in the eastern border of the Maldonado region, about 11 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and is still one of the only wineries in this region. He then hired Alberto Antonini, a famed enologist from Tuscany, to make that desire a reality. In 2007, Antonini started to examine the region, checking its soils and terroir, trying to ascertain what might grow best. He felt that the region resembled Galicia, a region in the northwest of Spain, which explains why they eventually planted Albariño, a dominant grape in Galicia.

It is important to recognize the different soil types in Uruguay, as the Western region tends to have clay soils while the Eastern region, where Garzón is located, tends to have granite soils. In 2008, the first Garzón vines began to be planted, starting with about 12 different grapes. Their first commercial vintage was in 2011 and they started exporting their wines in 2013. Thus, their wines are relative newcomers to the U.S. market.

In 2016, their state-of-the-art winery and restaurant opened to public, and they are seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, which would make them the first sustainable winery outside the U.S. with that certification. About 30,000 people visit their winery each year. Bodega Garzón is passionate about sustainability and their goal is to make all of their vineyards 100% organic. Currently, the winery owns about 500 acres of vineyards, broken down into 1000 different lots. They grow grapes including Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Marselan, Caladoc, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, and Petit Manseng. Despite that diversity, about 1/3 of their vineyards are planted with Tannat.

About 70% of their wine production is exported and in 2017, they were the largest exporter in Uruguay, comprising about 28.5% of the total market share. About 38% of their exports are sent to Brazil while about 22%, approximately 11,000 cases, are exported to the U.S. It is clear to see that exports of Uruguayan wines to the U.S. remain comparatively low, making it very much a niche wine. However, the Uruguayan wine industry is seeing significant growth so more will get soon exported to the U.S. For Garzón, they grew 300% in 2017, and that rapid growth is certainly a challenge to handle properly. They also believe that more education is needed, to teach consumers about Uruguay and their wines.

The Bodega Garzón wines imported into the U.S. come in three basic levels, Reserve (about $17), Single Vineyard (about $27) and the high-end Balasto (about $120). As their website states, "Garzón’s terroir is made up of ballast, a fantastic soil of fine stone. It has an excellent drainage and plenty of minerals that vines can absorb; they lend minerality, vibrancy, complexity and elegance to the wine." In addition, when oak aging is conducted, the barrels tend to be quite large and untoasted, so the oak won't overpower and conceal the fruit and other characteristics of the wine. Overall, I found the wines to be well-balanced, elegant, and fresh, with plenty of acidity, a nice minerality, and each level possessed its own unique style.

The evening began with the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, which is fermented in stainless steel and sees no oak. All of the Reserve wines are about freshness, and this Sauvignon Blanc certainly presented a fresh and crisp image. The natural acidity is said to be due to the vineyard's closeness to the ocean. There were delightful and bright flavors of grapefruit and lemon, with mineral notes, and all of the elements were well-balanced. An excellent summer wine, this would also work great with seafood.

Bodega Garzón is one of the only Uruguayan wineries that grows Albariño, with 20% of their vineyards dedicated to this grape. This might be due to the region being a great growing region for the grape but there are very few wineries currently located there. The 2016 Albariño Reserve is fermented in stainless steel and sits on the lees for 5-6 months. It was fresh, clean and crisp, with delicious fruit flavors of peach, citrus and apple, some mineral notes, and a pleasing richness to its body. This would be delicious on its own, sitting on your porch this summer, or paired with some oysters, shrimp or grilled fish. It will remind you of a tasty Spanish Albariño.

The 2016 Albariño Single Vineyard is produced from high quality grapes, selected from the best seven plots in the vineyard. About 80% of the grapes were fermented in large, concrete tanks (without epoxy) and the rest were fermented in untoasted oak barrels. The wine spends about 8 months on the lees. This is an impressive wine, elegant and complex, something meant to be slowly sipped and savored. It has a richer texture, great acidity, and more savory notes with only underlying and subtle fruit notes. The finish is long and satisfying, simply a stellar wine. Highly recommended.

The two Albariño wines have very different styles, but both certainly have their place, dependent on your preference at the moment.

I was also impressed with their 2015 Cabernet France Reserve, which was fermented in concrete tanks and then aged for 6-12 months in 50 hectoliter, untoasted French oak barrels and casks. With a rich purple color, the wine has alluring aromas, lots of ripe fruit and hints of spice. On the palate, there are delicious black and blue fruit flavors, enhanced by mild spice notes and a hint of herbal notes. There isn't a prominent flavor of green peppers, which delights me. The tannins are well integrated, the finish lingers, and there is a touch of mint on the finish too. This would be a great wine to pair with grilled meats this summer. Or even a pizza. Highly recommended.

Tannat is the signature red grape of Uruguay, similar in some respects to Malbec in Argentina. It can be a highly tannic grape, due in part because Tannat has more seeds than any other grape. The Tannat grapes for Garzón's wines include some clones from France, but I was told that their soils make the grapes taste different. The 2016 Tannat Reserve is fermented in concrete, and aged for 6-9 months in untoasted, large French oak barrels. This wine is all about fresh red and black fruit flavors, with very mild tannins, crisp acidity and a pleasant finish. It is bold yet restrained, great for burgers to pizza, grilled meats or meaty pasta dishes.

The 2016 Tannat Single Vineyard is a stunner, which is produced from high quality grape from the best seven parcels in the vineyards. It is fermented in concrete, and aged for 12-18 months in untoasted, 5000 liter French oak casks. Like the Albariño Single Vineyard, it is elegant and complex, with well-integrated tannins and delicious flavors of black fruits, mild spices, mineral notes and a hint of chocolate. It is well balanced, with plenty of acidity, and a lengthy finish that is eminently satisfying. This is a wine you could slowly savor all night, though it would work well with a variety of foods as well, especially meat-based. Highly recommended.

The final wine of the evening was their high-end 2015 Balasto, the first release of this line. The name, "Balasto," refers to the upper layer of granite of the soil. It is considered a blend of the best grapes of the vineyard, and this vintage was a blend of 45% Tannat, 25% Cabernet France, 20% Petit Verdot, and 10% Marselan. Subsequent vintages may have different ratios, such as the 2016 vintage which had less Petite Verdot and more Marselan. The 2015 was released last September, only about 8800 bottles, and the label ink actually includes some granite in it. Subsequent vintages have a large amount of production.  

The grapes were fermented in concrete tanks and then the wine spent about 20 months in untoasted, large French oak casks. This is a powerful, muscular wine with concentrated red and black fruit flavors, yet it still possesses a beautiful elegance. The tannins are restrained, helping to rein in its power. There are also subtle spice notes, nice acidity, a hint of earthiness and it possesses a lingering and pleasant finish. This is a wine built for aging, though it is still impressive now. If you wish to splurge on a wine, or buy someone a high-end gift, then you should consider this wine. Highly recommended.

Uruguayan wines are a niche that you should explore, and the wines of Bodega Garzón would be a great starting point. They will show you the potential of Uruguay, as well as the terroir, for both white and red wines, from Albariño to Tannat. Their different levels will show you the various wine styles you can find, from fresh and fruity to more savory and complex. Most of their wines, except for the Balasto, are fairly affordable, from $17-$27, with the Balasto being a splurge wine. Expand your vinous horizons and let your palate visit Uruguay.

1 comment:

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