The Raffs Become Winemakers: Carmelo, Uruguay: February 11 – 13, 2020

One of the big draws for us to visit Uruguay was the wine.  The Carmelo region was described in a New York Times article as “the Tuscany of Uruguay” and explorable via bicycles. Based on that article and a few blogs, we were all in to experience it ourselves.  What better way to see the countryside than by cycling through the vineyards and working up an appetite between stops!

Carmelo is 3.5 hours from Montevideo on the Rio de la Plata.  It is a small working town and hasn’t been built up for the tourist industry.  Most of the tourists, primarily Argentine and Brazilian, stay outside town at the wineries, but to save $250 a night, we were willing to ride a few extra kilometers a day.  English is not widely spoken, so we practiced our Spanish and tried to get used to the fast pace and new phrases. 

The town’s pride is a red swing bridge.  Throughout our time here, many people asked if we had seen the bridge and showed us pictures from a flood last year.  The view was nice, and we enjoyed watching the local swim club practice. 

The best restaurant in town was a bakery with empanadas and homemade alfajores (chocolate cookie sandwiched with dulce del leche).

Our hotel receptionist told us there was a parade that evening to celebrate the town’s 200th birthday.  Much to our surprise, we got to enjoy a little taste of carnaval in this tiny town as this parade was similar in style to the large parades in Montevideo. 

The parade had 6 troupes from different neighborhoods. Each troupe had a similar setup but different colors and level of talent.  First would be the banner carriers displaying the neighborhood’s troupe and sponsors.  Next were the flag twirlers with huge, colorful flags.  The twirlers were strong men who somehow never hit a bystander with their flags.  Usually there were a few boys in training with smaller flags in between the men.  Next were dancing ladies ranging from young girls to older ladies constantly swinging their hips to the beat of the drum.  Following the dancers, was a family of clownish people including fake grannies and an old man with cane.  After the family was a young man with 2 really good female dancers.  Finally, there were the drummers, the soul of the troop.  Both girls and boys carried the drums, but mostly boys.  

It was really special to experience this parade, as this was the part of carnaval we were most excited about.  It was cool to see pretty much the whole town out watching the parade.  The kids were dancing along the sidewalks and the ladies swaying their hips to the beat.

Following our night on the town, we headed out for our first day of wine tasting.  We rented bikes from our hotel.  They were single speeds with a basket and fat tires, so it was going to be slow going.  The first winery was 6km away via the main road but had minimal traffic.  We had a head wind, but it was flat, and we had all day so pedaled along earning our wine.

On our way out of town, we saw a couple of horse drawn carts.  The saying in this area is, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it”!  So, I guess it is the norm as we saw lots of them over the course of 3 days.  My picture isn’t great, as the cart was hauling, but the kid’s grin made me happy.

Our first winery was El Legardo, a very small boutique winery.  They produce 8,000 bottles a year.  The grandfather planted the grapes when he settled the land, but due to a recession, he had to sell most of the land.  In 2007, the son decided to replant on the remaining land and start up the family winery.  We met him and our tour guide was his son.  It was a true family business.  They are 1 week from harvest, so we got to see the grapes looking juicy and dark.

The tasting was 3 wines paired with a charcuterie board.  The wines were all excellent… Syrah, Tannat, and a Syrah/Tannat blend.  The blend was a barrel tasting, and we both had fun using the wine thief!

While we were tasting, we enjoyed chatting with a couple from London, Kerry and David. They have spent the last 3 years traveling Central and South America, so it was fun to swap stories.  We also enjoyed talking politics between our two countries. 

Our second winery of the day was a short ride to Almacen de la Capilla.  We missed our turn so ended up riding a little farther, but it was along a nice dirt road and allowed us to regain our taste buds.

Our tour guide was the winemaker herself, Anna.  She is the 5th generation wine maker and first female wine maker in the region.  Traditional expectations kept her from studying to be a winemaker at university, but when her father died, she took over the family business.  The front of the winery is an old general store selling dulce de leche, local olive oil and jams.  There were lots of family antiques, plus the original trap door cellar that we got to explore. 

Our wine tasting was 6 wines, 2 grappa and another huge charcuterie board!  The wines were more varied and included… Chardonnay, Rose Muscat, Rose Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and a sweet Muscat.  All were excellent.

We stayed quite a long time chatting again with our UK friends and meeting the winemaker’s husband, Diego.  By the end of the tasting, we were fast friends and Anna invited us to join their harvest the next day! 

Riding back to town was easy with the wind at our back and cooler temps.  No parades tonight, but we did hear a troupe practicing in the neighborhood.

The next day, we were up early to ride our bikes to Almacen to help with the harvest.  We were greeted by Anna who handed us clippers and sent us to the field.  Once there, we saw our UK friends already at work.  Diego gave us a quick 3-minute lesson and a section to work.  We picked a few crates worth, only clipping the large, lower clusters.  It wasn’t easy because it took so much work to untangle the leaves from the bunches.  After picking our crates, Diego picked them up with an old tractor, and we headed back to the winery to watch the crush. 

As this is a small family run process, Anna inspected each cluster before it was crushed.  It was neat to see it all in action as we have learned about the process often enough throughout our wine tastings over the years.  We even got to taste the juice from the crush which was yummy and sweet which is good for the alcohol.  What an incredible experience to be part of the team helping with harvest and crush.  Something we will probably never do again.

After saying our goodbyes, we hopped back on the bikes to ride 10km to Narbona winery.  The first 8km were pleasant with huge trees giving shade and lots of birds to watch.  Then the road turned, and we started our climb into the wind with no shade and temps in the 90’s. 

I was very happy to arrive and see lots of shade!  Narbona is the largest winery in the region and owned by an Argentine family.  They kept the original name from the Italian family who planted the grapes.  They were also harvesting, so we got to see the live crush, but on a much bigger scale than Anna’s. 

We tasted 3 wines which were paired with 6 cheeses, also made on the property.  Rose Tannat, Pinot Noir, and Tannat.  All were great and the cheeses were fantastic.  At first, I thought the pours were a little stingy, but then once we finished one, she started refilling.  In the end, all 3 bottles were left to be consumed by us and a Brazilian couple.  We enjoyed chatting with them, and they were both Industrial Engineers.  We shared our favorite places in our home countries, and by the end of the tasting we each wanted to travel to the others’ country.

After our tasting, we ate in their highly rated restaurant.  It lived up to expectations and my homemade ravioli was amazing! Plus, we got to enjoy more of their amazing wine!  It was a great way to spend the afternoon.

The ride back to town was a breeze, downhill with the wind at our back.  We giggled and reflected on the experiences that we shared during the day.

I would not say that Carmelo is the Tuscany of Uruguay, but it is its own special place in this world.  The small, family run wineries with warm welcomes and amazing wines were pretty special.  Plus, the opportunity to enjoy the countryside via bikes was a fun way to spend a few days.

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