We’re in the middle of the countryside in Carmelo in the Colonia region, in the far west of Uruguay. Carmelo sits on the estuary of Río de la Plata, and is separated from its much bigger neighbour Argentina by the River Uruguay (tiny Uruguay has another giant neighbour on the other side, Brazil).
Baking on our bikes
It’s December, height of summer, and the sun is beating on us from above, the uneven orange dirt road pumping up dry heat from beneath our bikes. We might have taken a wrong turn somewhere (there are no road signs and hardly any signs of anything), but it felt like we’d been on the road for a while and we had no means of telling whether or not we were headed in the right direction. We were surrounded by vineyards, proudly showing off row after row of vines forming stripes of green against the terracotta soil, those lines disappearing into the distance where the earth met the crisp blue sky.
They were vineyards alright, but whose were they? We didn’t want to ride all the way back to the hotel, so we kept going – and luckily, we spotted some workers in the field. Apparently, El Legado was only “una cuadra” (one block) away.
One block? What does that mean when we’re in the middle of the countryside?
By the way, I’ve noticed a lot of Latin Americans use “cuadra(s)” when you ask for directions, even where there are no blocks of anything at all (such as now, in the middle of the countryside). We’ve also been at the mercy of fairly bad distance callers – both people and signs! (Like the time we missed one of only two buses on the Ometepe island of Nicaragua, resulting in a 5 hour trek back to the hotel – but that’s another story)
During our last stretch, my mind focuses back on the winery visit we were about to have. El Legado advertises itself as a “boutique bodega“, and I had never been to one of those before. What makes a bodega “boutique”, and what kind of a person would call their bodega that? I’m now imagining a lady in high heels to greet us at the said boutique. But instead, to our relief, we were greeted by a slightly nervous-looking Bernado Marzuca, owner of El Legado.
It turns out Bernado was nervous, for a reason. And the reason was us. Our hotel had told him to expect a couple from England. Add to that, he then saw me riding up on my bike, looking like a lost Japanese tourist, followed closely by my very “gringo” looking boyfriend.
Once we greet him in Spanish, his face breaks out in a smile – he confessed that he’d been worried about having to speak English (even though his English is fine). Problem solved, we started our little tour, just the three of us.
The Legacy of El Legado
El Legado, Bernardo explained, was named in honour of his late father, Don Luis Marzuca whose dream was to create a family winery. Having acquired extensive land in the area, in 1968, Don Luis started planting the first vines. Just as they were getting ready to launch their bodega, however ,the economic crisis hit Uruguay and with it disappeared Don Luis’s business ventures and his dream of owning a bodega.
Soon after, Don Luis passed away and Bernardo’s mother had to sell off some of the vineyards, renting out the rest to Irurtia, the biggest winery in the area. In 2007, Bernardo himself reclaimed some the land that had been rented out to Irurtia for years. Together with his young family, Bernardo started reinstating his father’s legacy (legado), in building a family bodega, brick by brick.
Today, set within beautiful grounds including a small but very inviting swimming pool that the whole family chipped in to build, El Legado has 1 hectare of vineyards mostly producing the Tannat variety (70%) as well as some Syrah (30%). Since producing their very first bottle in 2011, Bernardo continues to lovingly produce small quantities (only 3,000 bottles per year) of good quality artisan wines that are so Uruguayan in character that you could almost taste the terroir in your glass.
As he showed us around his vineyards, we see that his father’s old vines are still present among the younger vines that Bernardo has imported from France. He then tells us passionately about each step of the wine making process, and proudly introduces us to the oak barrels that line up his cellar. Tannat is a very “strong” grape, so the ageing in oak barrels is an important process that not only helps the wine develop additional layers of flavour, but also serves to round off the sometimes harsh tannins.
“What’s the dark stain on the floor?” I asked.
“That,” Bernardo smiled somewhat nostalgically, “is where my youngest son smashed a bottle of wine a few years ago. My sons will continue with my father’s legacy in good time. And they have already made their mark”.
It’s clear that Bernardo has not only followed his father’s legacy by making reality his dreams of owning a bodega, but has also been very successful in putting his own stamp on it with the help of his sons.
Now I can see it is indeed a boutique of a winery, where every detail has been carefully thought through. Where every mark tells a story. Being there, you feel really it’s far more than a business, it’s a passion for the grape, the land and the wine – all of which are boldly represented in a glass of El Legado.
Like what you read? Subscribe to my Newsletter and receive new posts direct to your inbox!