Uruguay's Agriculture Sector

14 July 2017

This month the Cairns Group website is celebrating Uruguay's agriculture sector by providing information on three of their key sectors - wine, dairy and meat.

WINE

Uruguay is a country of small-scale, family-owned wineries with a European winemaking tradition that produces dynamic and award-winning wines of outstanding quality. The coastal Atlantic climate is often compared to Bordeaux’s, producing wines with well-balanced levels of alcohol and acidity.

Winemaking began in the 18th century when the Spanish brought vines to the region. With approximately 180 wineries, Uruguay produces 10 million cases of wine annually from its 22,000 acres of vines.Tannat is the country's flagship, a robust grape with the highest levels of polyphenols & resveratrol of all red grapes and that the world is increasingly discovering and assessing.

Exports are increasing as wineries focus on international markets, and our wines are being demanded by importers and retailers throughout the world with a general consensus among experts that the best Uruguayan wines can comfortably compete on a world stage.

Geography

Uruguay sits between 30°-35° latitude and 53°-58° longitude in the Southern Hemisphere. Most of the country’s vineyards lie in the southern latitudes in the departments of Canelones, Montevideo, San José, and Colonia, although vineyards can be found in 16 of the country’s 19 departments.In addition to the southern departments along the Rio de la Plata, there are especially promising viticulture developments in Maldonado on the Atlantic and in Rivera near the Brazilian border. In general, the landscape is very old with advanced weathering that has resulted in a relatively fat topography that is mostly less than 200m in height. The highest peak in Uruguay (Cerro Catedral, where some producers has an experimental vineyard planted on sandy basalt soils) is just over 500 meter high.

Soils 

Uruguay sits on top of the Rio de la Plata craton, ancient basement rock that shows up in the south and east of the country where most of the country’s vineyards are planted. As a result, the soils of these vineyards are very old and granitic in origin.  

Weathering and erosion processes have resulted in a wide variety of soil types throughout the country.The deepest, most fertile soils lie to the south in the areanorth and west of Montevideo, relatively close to the Rio de la Plata and the Rio Uruguay. The soils in this wine-growing region are calcareous-clay, but they vary considerably depending on the clay and chalk content and the depth of the soil. To the east of Montevideo, the soils are shallow with relatively low capacity to store water.Still further east, closer to the Atlantic, the topography is undulating with highly varied, shallow stony soils often of weathered granite. The calcareous nature of the soils in Uruguay’s most important wine growing departments along the Rio de la Plata is similar to that found in many of the premium wine growing regions of France and Italy and is quite unlike most the wine growing regions elsewhere in the Americas. 

Climate 

The absence of mountains and other weather barriers plus proximity to water—the Atlantic, Rio de la Plata, and the Rio Uruguay—on three sides of the country give Uruguay a relatively homogeneous but highly changeable climate.Extremes of temperature are uncommon. Areas close to water, especially the east and south, have a maritime climate that benefts from cooling sea breezes during the summer. Areas to the north have a more continental climate that is warmer in the summer and drier in the winter with larger diurnal swings in temperature.  

The cold Malvinas/Falkland current in the South Atlantic plays a critical role in Uruguay’s weather. Originating in the Antarctic, it flows north to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata at about 38° latitude south, where it collides with the warm Brazil current and then turns east and cycles southward.  

Rainfall is highly variable from year to year, but as shown in the chart it’s fairly evenly spread throughout the year (data for Montevideo).Total rainfall (950mm in Montevideo) and its distribution is similar to that of Bordeaux. During the summer, evapotranspiration is higher than precipitation, posing the risk of water deficiencies.Rainfall levels are higher in the south than the north of the country. Summer thunderstorms, high humidity, and fog are common in Uruguay.Average humidity along the coast ranges from 75-80 percent.The country has experienced both floods and droughts in recent years. 

Principal Producing Regions

There are three principal wine producing regions in the country:

Rio de La Plata Region

The first and most important region lies along the Rio de la Plata and consists of Canelones, Montevideo, San José, and Colonia. The clay soils in this region are fertile and well-draining, frequently with high calcareous content. The summer heat is moderated by maritime breezes, and regular precipitation throughout the year precludes the need for irrigation. Located north and northeast of the large Montevideo market, Canelones is the most important wine region, accounting for around 65 percent of the country’s total grape plantings. It includes some of the country’s most important wine producing sub regions —Las Piedras, Progreso, Juanicó, Canelón Chico—and most of its best known wineries.

The department of Montevideo is the second most important grape growing region with 12 percent of the country’s plantings, followed by San José, the department that lies west from Canelones and accounts for 6 percent of total plantings. The department of Colonia, to the west of San José, lies across the river from Argentina. it has about 8 percent of the nation’s vines.

Atlantic Region

To the east of Canelones along the Atlantic coast lies the department of Maldonado, which has 4 percent of total plantings. Italian enologist Alberto Antonini, consultant to a local winery, claims the well-drained, stony granitic soils of this area give it the potential for making Uruguay’s best wines. Three premium winerieshave vineyards and/or wineries here, close to the sea, and the area is likely to be the focus of future attention.

Northeast& Other Regions

Vineyards and wineries are also found in several other departments of Uruguay, with a special development in Cerro Chapeu (Rivera), just across the border from Brazil’s dynamic CampanhaGaúcha. Perhaps most famous is Salto, located on the Río Uruguay, across the river from Argentina. This is where PascualHarriague first planted Tannat. The department of Paysandú, which lies directly south of Salto, has several vineyards and wineries; Durazno, once one of the most important wineregions, is receiving new investments and it has recently been the focus of renewed attention.

Recent Vintages

Vintages in Uruguay do not differ radically, although weather patterns have become more unpredictable in recent years. In the typical year, winter rains build water reserves in the soil, and budding occurs in the spring without frost events. The growing season sees normal rainfall without extreme temperatures, followed by dry, warm weather during the harvest. However, extreme weather events occasionally occur, including spring frosts, torrential downpours, strong winds and untimely harvest rains, all of which create the vintage variations noted below.

Vineyards and Grapes

Uruguay has about 7.000 hectares (18 thousand acres) of vines, and plantings are concentrated in the south of the country, close to the Rio de la Plata. As mentioned before, the four adjacent departments of Montevideo, Canelones, San Jose, and Colonia account for 90 percent of all plantings.

The Uruguayan vineyards are mostly comprised of red grapes planted in small parcels, about 90% family owned. Red wine grapes accounted for 80% of all plantings in 2015, and three-quarters of all vineyards were under 5 ha in size.

The Uruguayan vineyardsare planted to a mix of Vitisvinifera and French-American hybrid vines, 75 different varieties in total. The two Vitisvinifera wines of most historical importance are Tannat (formerly, Harriague) and Folle Noir (formerly, Vidiella, and known as Jurançon Noir in Southwest France), a grape that produces a light-bodied, early-drinking wine. Decades ago, the Government’s program to replace hybrids with Vitisvinifera was very successful, and hybrids are not found in premium wines today.

Given the humid climate, the varieties that do best in Uruguay are those resistant to rot and mildew. Thus, today one finds successful experiments in growing Albariño, Petit Manseng, and Marselan in addition to many other varieties. One advantage of the regular summer precipitation along Uruguay’s coast is that irrigation is required in only exceptional circumstances.

Tannat

Uruguayan Tannat originated in the Madiran region of the French Pyrenees. The oblong grape is high in anthocyanins and makes an intensely colored, almost black wine that is infamous for its tannins. It is also the world’s most heart-healthy vine with about 2.7 times more resveratrol than other French red varieties and very high levels ofprocyanidins, the flavonoids that increase oxygen flow to red blood cells and reduce heart disease risks.

Tannat arrived in Uruguay in the late 19th century from France via Concordia, Argentina, in the hands of PascualHarriague. This original Tannat grape is still present in Uruguay—25 percent of all Tannat plantings are over 50 years old, but very few producers make an old vine Tannat. French clones of Tannatwere brought to Uruguay beginning in the 1970s.

Thanks to government financial incentives, most of the Harriague original cuttings were uprooted in the 1990s and replaced by French clones. Today, most winemakers use some combination of French clones in their vineyards.

Due to extensive replanting in the 1980s and 1990s, Uruguay’s vineyard is middle aged with about 65 percent of all vines falling between 11 and 30 years of age. Another 14 percent are under 5 years of age, and 2 percent are over 50 years old.

Online videos are found on the following Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/VinosDelUruguay

DAIRY

Information on this sector can be found in the following documents:

THE DAIRY SECTOR IN URUGUAY.docx

Tr+ptico INALE ingles frente.jpg

MEAT

Information for this sector can be found at: https://www.uruguayanmeats.uy/overview-uruguayan-meats

Last Updated: 14 July 2017