This tiny South American nation, on the same latitude as viticulture giants Argentina and Chile, is home to family-owned bodegas producing exciting and experimental new blends.

“I love creating new blends, experimenting with grapes and techniques, and taking risks. Any winery today can hire an oenologist and make standard wines. But it’s about the process. If I had to make the same wine all the time to the same standard...” said boutique winemaker Pablo Fallabrino, before trailing off and bursting into laughter. 

Fallabrino and his wife Mariana own Viñedo de los Vientos, one of a pick of boutique wineries located a short drive from the bright lights and sandy beaches of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

In an age of mass production, it is a delight to visit these family-owned wineries. This tiny South American country that lies within the golden 30 to 35 parallels along with viticulture giants Argentina and Chile -- as well as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia -- is an emerging wine country that as well as producing exciting new blends is home to a budding wine route comprised of 15 small wineries.

At Viñedo de los Vientos, Fallabrino and Mariana’s home sits amid 15 hectares of green vineyards. Here, they welcome their visitors with open arms, uncorking fabulous wines to pair with seafood empanadas and lamb and beef cuts. Their small winery, comprising a fermentation room, a barrel cellar and a bottling station, is a short walk away along a dirt path. It is Fallabrino’s haven. Aided by four staff, he makes high-quality varietals for specialist stores in the US and Europe: unable to mass produce for international supermarkets because of their limited grape harvests, Uruguay’s wineries focus on small-scale production of higher-value and higher-quality wines. Fallabrino’s specialty is the red tannat wine that is Uruguay’s emblematic varietal. Brought from Bordeaux in France in the 1870s, tannat – a bold wine with aromas of black fruits – flourishes better in the ultra-fertile Uruguayan terroir than anywhere else in the world, and Uruguay is its number one producer.

Winemakers here quip  that they did not choose tannat, it chose them. Uruguay’s climate and geography – its lies on an estuary and faces the Atlantic Ocean – is remarkably similar to Bordeaux’s, and the tannic, full-bodied wines it makes are much closer to Bordeaux-style wines than the fruitier, lighter varietals typical of New World winemaking, including Argentina and Chile.

Visiting these boutique winemakers is a joy, the vinicultural equivalent of being shown the chocolate factory by Willy Wonka himself. At Los Vientos, Fallabrino speaks with passion about his latest experiment. He is producing elegant Italian reds to blend with and soften the punch of the Uruguayan totem. Fallabrino’s grandfather, also a winemaker, emigrated to Uruguay from Italy’s Piedmont region in the 1920s and Fallabrino has dedicated small plots to Piedmont reds nebbiolo and barbera. “The early results are fantastic,” he enthused.

Fallabrino’s love of experimentation echoes throughout the hillsides of Uruguay’s rolling wine country. Gustavo Magariños, head of trade group Wines of Uruguay, puts it down to freedom from the yoke of commercialisation. Winemakers in Uruguay, he explained, have carte-blanche to make the wines they love.“Argentine and Chilean wineries are way bigger and more commercialised than wineries in Uruguay and standardise wines in order to reach international sales objectives. In Uruguay, no one is aiming to conquer the world and so winemakers have absolute freedom to develop wines as they please.”  

This means you can visit several bodegas within close proximity and taste completely different products, each with the unique signature of the winemaker. “It is partly down to differences in terroir, but mostly in winemaking. Tannat has so much body, so many tannins; it’s a fantastic wine to play with, to create new blends”  he explained.

Therein lies the pleasure of wine travel in this tiny South American country: distinctive wines and intimate, personalised visits that guide you to the heart of the winemaking process. In Uruguay, you are more likely to engage a winery owner in a discussion over a silky tannat than endure a 30-person tasting overseen by a seasonal amateur with a microphone.

 Fifteen of Uruguay’s boutique wineries comprise the budding Wine Roads, a grouping that works to promote vini-tourism in the South American country and which handles reservations, transport and guides for enthusiasts planning to visit member wineries, including Viñedo de los Vientos. Started on a shoestring budget in 2007, in 2011 it helped more than 50,000 wine-lovers discover Uruguay’s family-owned bodegas.  

Each of the 15 wineries is no more than an hour’s drive from Montevideo, meaning you can hit the beach, shop or grab a little culture by morning, and partake in wine tastings by afternoon. The best way to explore them, Magariños shared, is to marry the small and rustic, like Viñedo de los Vientos or H Stagnari – a winery that is centred upon a 19th-century ranch house and has 13 hectares of ribbed, sloping vineyards of chardonnay – with  more  sophisticated boutique wineries, where modern visitor facilities range from on-site wine shops to gourmet restaurants. One of these latter types, Bodega Bouza, makes limited-edition red and white wines which it sells to upscale restaurants including the UK’s world-renowned the Fat Duck, and selects its grapes from tiny, half-hectare plots in order to make the most distinctive wines possible. Each bottle’s label gives the wine’s vintage, the number of barrels used in its making and the quantity of bottles produced. Excitingly, Bodega Bouza, whose gourmet restaurant makes it unique among Uruguay’s boutique wineries, is one of a number of wineries planting new vines on the sierras overlooking the bleach-white sands of South America’s hippest beach resort town, Punta del Este, located 140km east of Montevideo. The climate and terroir around Punta del Este differs from Montevideo’s: the earth is stonier, the altitude is higher and the vineyards are closer to the cool breezes of the Atlantic Ocean. Here they are experimenting with albariño, an aromatic white wine native to northern Spain, and seeing excellent early results.

Alto de la Ballena was the first producer to build a winery near Punta del Este, back in 2008. Its proud owners, husband and wife Alvaro Lorenzo and Paula Pivel, used to truck their grapes over to Viñedo de los Vientos for crushing and fermenting before they opened this tiny bodega. Today, Alto de la Ballena produces tannat, cabernet franc and viognier, as well as a delightful tannat-viognier blend. Enjoying a higher altitude than the wineries around Montevideo, it hosts tastings on a west-facing hillside deck, where sunset views encompass swathes of eucalyptus, vines and a coastal lagoon. Punta del Este lies just to the east with white sands and a turquoise ocean. It is the perfect spot to round out a tour of Uruguay’s boutique wineries. The discovery of new wines at steps from the beach -- who would not raise a glass to that?