Xanadu in Uruguay: Bodega Garzon
The scope of the Bodega Garzon project in Uruguay is almost megalomaniacal. It takes a Citizen Kane like vision to start a winery by planting 200 hectares comprised of 1,200 small individual vineyards planted to Tannat, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and several others. The idea was to create a giant vineyard laboratory to explore how soil, aspect, and light impact grape quality. The mission is to put Uruguay on the international stage. Consultant Alberto Antonini was retained for the project and brings his unique sensibility to it. It is a gargantuan undertaking nearly unparalleled in the wine world.
Tannat has been Uruguay’s best-known grape. Its harsh tannins are famous. However, Antonini believes that the harshness of the tannins has more to do with poorly located vineyards than saying anything about Tannat’s viability in the country. The Bodega Garzon Tannat seems to prove that point as its elegance and tannin refinement bear no resemblance to the Uruguayan beasts I have tasted before.
The vineyards of Garzon are located very close to the Atlantic Ocean on the south-eastern side of Uruguay, not too far from Buenos Aires. Soil types vary and include granite and sand. Granite soils are very strong for Albarino and so Antonini planted some of that variety – it does very well. The Domaine is continually attempting to reduce the use of bordeaux mixture and sulphur spray because they believe soils must be alive in order for grapes to have the most complex flavours. According to Antonini, alive soils require pourosity to allow air and water to penetrate the surface. This allows microbiology to develop and causes the vines’ root systems to travel far deeper.
Bodega Garzon was built with the philosophy of indigenous ferments. This means commercial yeasts have never been in the winery (which is good because they take years to get rid of). In Antonini’s view – one with which I strongly agree – commercial yeast is part of the standardization of wine. He asks why in Uruguay would he use a yeast selected in Bordeaux?
The estate develops its wines using what Antonini calls “live materials” – i.e. concrete and wood. Stainless steel is used only for the entry level wines, but you may wonder why they even bother when Antonini describes the smell of stainless steel tanks as “death” versus concrete tanks, which smell of “life”. Since 2015 the estate uses only large untoasted barrels rather than barrique. For Antonini, however, the best quality fruit doesn’t need the help of oak and so he questions its use for top cuvees. This has led him to use ever more neutral vessels over his career, a change in evidence at Garzon.
Another reason to use concrete and wood is that ageing requires microoxygenation as well as microbiological reactions. Oak, concrete and terracotta provide this permeability, but steel does not.
Uniquely, for the whites, the winery presses whole clusters and lets the juice sit on the lees for a few days, which assists with texture and aromatics. They then rack off the big lees and start the fermentation and fine lees ageing.
In the end, says Antonini, drinkability is the key to a successful wine more than anything else.
Overall I think Garzon is an intriguing project. It is particularly successful with its Tannat and Albarino plantings and I would highly recommend them for something very good quality but also different. The other varieties are far less interesting at this point.
Estate Albariño 2015: good varietal Albariño. Doesn’t have the complexity of the higher end bottlings but it is mouth watering and ideal for light summer fare. Very Good.
Reserve Albariño 2016: Superb quality that is varietally true and has a unique salinity with round texture but very fresh and long acids. Far less harsh acidity than the estate bottlings. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Single vineyard Albariño 2016: Richer and rounder than the estate, the wine to me is less exciting and complete but does display a unique character with more melon and weightier texture. Very Good+.
Reserva Tannat 2015: Much tamer tannin than you would expect. This wine is made with clones selected from Madiran rather than Uruguay plantings. Elegant wine with savoury leather and spice. Unique wine and delicious. Excellent.
Single Vineyard Tannat 2015: More structured and dense than the reserva. Less elegant but seems like it will age very well and offer a powerful rendition of Tannat in 5+ years. Excellent.
These wines should be in private stores within the next few months.