Uruguayan wine regions are coastal, meaning that their climate is defined by prevailing winds from the Río de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean, which usually ensure plenty of rainfall, especially in summer.
However, this wasn’t true of the 2023 harvest. Uruguay suffered from its most severe drought in 50 years and, of course, the lack of water was felt by the vineyards. The drought was coupled with severe heat that brought forward ripening times by 15 days.
This is an effect of climate change, which has in fact been somewhat beneficial for Uruguay, as the oenologist Ricardo Cabrera, president of the Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura – Vinos del Uruguay (INAVI) – said.
‘The 2023 harvest in Uruguay produced a 23% lower yield compared to the previous year due to the drought, which ran from September 2022, the budding period, onwards. However, it also resulted in grapes of excellent health, with good levels of alcohol and aromas, lending them unusual balance. The wines from the 2023 harvest will undoubtedly get people talking with their quality and stability. The quality makes up for the drop in yields.’
The value of water
Given the dry year, the availability of irrigation systems was a key factor in Uruguay. As this is a country where average rainfall has traditionally been sufficient, only more recent vineyard projects, mainly located to the east where the soils are poor and stony, are equipped with drip irrigation. In 2023 this was a great blessing.
In the historic wine-producing regions such as Canelones and Montevideo, where 75% of vineyards are located, irrigation was rarely necessary as the clay soils retain enough humidity for the roots of the vines. But this year, some water reserves were exhausted, leading to the blocking of vines during ripening. This in turn led to the drop in yields mentioned by Cabrera.
Gabriel Pisano, a producer from El Progreso, Canelones, reported: ‘In this area, because of the clay soils, the plants get along without irrigation. The clay retains more humidity and adult plants with roots that have delved deep are always able to produce nicely. But in other areas, there were significant drops in yields, as much as 30% in some vineyards.’
‘The year was a dry one throughout the growing season and irrigation was necessary in every vineyard. In normal years, you only need to irrigate in the eastern vineyards, very rarely in the south, but this time it was required shortly after budding began,’ said Eduardo Boido de Bouza at the Las Violetas winery in Canelones.
In summary, the lack of rain and high temperatures made for a healthy year in the vineyards, but a brief harvest window and lower yields.
Around the regions
In spite of the often-difficult conditions, each of the viticultural regions of Uruguay enjoyed excellent health, which will result in high quality, expressive wines – albeit in lower quantities. ‘The quality of the grapes went up a notch, we’re going to have great wines this year,’ said Santiago Deicas of Familia Deicas, which owns vineyards across Uruguay .
‘The conditions meant that we could harvest all the grapes in a lovely state of ripeness, which can be difficult sometimes in Uruguay,’ says Eduardo Boido of Bodega Bouza in Canelones. ‘I think that the whites, like the Chardonnay, are going to present excellent aromas and volume.’
Meanwhile, Pisano added: ‘We’re seeing significant concentration in the whites and reds, but they’re still maintaining their usual freshness. It was a fantastic year for the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a quality that’s hard to achieve in other years. The Tannats are delicious.’
To the east of Uruguay, the ocean breezes brought some rain during the budding season, which proved to be enough to ensure good grape development. Germán Bruzzone at Bodega Garzón said: ‘We made sure we got very healthy, expressive and fresh fruit. I sense this will be a year of great wines. The low pHs mean tart acidity, the whites have good colour and the reds will have gentle tannins because we were able to let them ripen on their own time. In fact, we harvested 15 days earlier than usual.’
Varieties to watch
In the northern region, scattered rains in spring ensured good bunch development. Francisco Carrau at Cerro Chapeu is excited about the reds. ‘I was surprised by the results we’re getting with Arinarnoa, a variety we’ve been working on for years; while the Tannats are delicious with good ripeness and freshness,’ he said.
To the south, Rodolfo Bartora at Los Cerros de San Juan winery in Colonia reported that, ‘the wines that stand out are mainly the whites, which have excellent concentration and character, such as the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. The reds developed good alcohol and polyphenols. The wines will be very concentrated, with plenty of fruit and volume in the mouth. I’m enthused about the Pinot Noir, Marselan, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat’.
*Figures for 2022 from Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura – Vinos del Uruguay (INAVI)