Alto de la Ballena: a big wine whale in Uruguay

Alto de la Ballena winery nests at a premium location in Uruguay. Not just for being in the vicinity of the popular holiday town of Punta del Este, but the views from the winery evoke a certain Western nostalgia as the rose scented canvas of the land twinkles under the sun setting behind the horizon. In that very moment the ranch cattle hoofs the pastures in search of the tastiest grass, while your graze is pleasantly distracted by a small lagoon nearby that accentuates the harmony of nature with the background of the rolling hills creating a breath-taking spectacle. Experiencing a sunset like this at Alto de la Ballena with a glass of its delicious wine feels as if it was a cut-out of your imaginary paradise.
Sunset from the vineyards of Alto de la Ballena
The winery’s name Alto de la Ballena means “The highs of whales” and comes from its location at Sierra de la Ballena, the “Whale Hills”.
The owners Paula Pivel (the winemaker) and Alvaro Lorenzo (her husband and director) bought the almost 20 hectares of land at the turn of the second millennium. In late 2003 Paula left her job at a bank in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, to devote her life to winemaking at Alto de la Ballena. Before acquiring the chief wine position at the winery she studied as a winemaker at the National Wine School in Uruguay.
Vineyards of Alto de la Ballena
So far only eight hectares are planted with vines. The iron-rich soil of oxidised grey granite, schist and quartz is ideal for producing high quality wines. The first harvest was in 2005, four years after planting the first crops on the estate. Most of the property lies on a stubbornly rocky slope, that is unsuitable for the vine plantation, yet it is visually attractive and popular with the local animals and the colourful, harmless lizards.
The vines
The varietals planted are: Merlot, Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and the lonely white Viognier. Sustainable winemaking is prominent in Uruguay and the winery embraces most of its aspects. This includes underground ageing of the wines, thus “taking advantage of the topography and the location at the foothill“. With the gratitude to this system a high amount of energy is being saved.
Tannat with Viognier blend
Alto de la Ballena makes single varietal wines such as Syrah and Merlot, but also blends with Tannat. The Reserva of Tannat, Merlot and Cabernet Franc being an exemplary achievement of balance and roundness. The fresh, yet slightly jammy fruit is harmonised by a touch of barrel wood and rewards with a lingering finish. More adventurous is the blend of the highly tannic red Tannat with Viognier, the later a white Northern Rhone fragrant grape varietal. The problem with this blend is that the result proved to be highly vintage sensitive so the winemaker decided to discontinue this blend. I have tried the 2008 vintage that was complex (the floral touch of Viognier contrasting with the big and powerful Tannat with a zing of fresh mint), yet not my favourite. The fruity, round and balanced Merlot with a masculine touch of cigar and tobacco and the velvety smooth Reserva 2008 red blend were my preferred sips.
Merlot from Alto de la Ballena
Success came quite soon for such a new winery. With the first wine released to the market in 2007, the wines I have tasted proved to be very well done. Striving for harmony and complexity is surely the right way to go for the ambitious female winemaker. I have greeted her at a number of big European wine fairs, and by now I am sure she found importers in Germany and beyond.
We tasted the wines together with an abundant cheese plate collected from the local farms that Paula prepared for us in the tasting “room”. This was a wooden deck protected from the local strong winds by the flickering shields of see-through curtains, not disturbing too much the spectacle of surrounding landscape. It was truly an balmy experience that I would recommend to anyone visiting Uruguay. If you get bored with lying on the beach, then set off for a small wine tasting trip and enjoy the beauty of the Uruguay’s countryside.
Sun setting over the vineyard

VISIT Alto de la Ballena:

 Bodega y Viñedos Alto de la Ballena
Ruta 12 Km. 16.400
Sierra de la Ballena – Dept. Maldonado, Uruguay
+598 94 410 328

Finca Narbona: Uruguayan restaurant, lodge and winery crafting cheese, pasta and wine

Finca is a farm, an agricultural land-bound estate or a rural property in Spanish and the almost three centuries old Finca Narbona has been resuscitated as a real farm or, to be precise, two farms. One estate is located in the Uruguay’s Carmelo just across the delta river border with Argentina, and the other over 160 miles away towards the Atlantic coast near Punta del Este. I visited them both, although spent more time wining and dining at the original property cum hotel near Carmelo, the coastal Finca Narbona is more productive, crafting cheese, pasta and wine. Both estates also absorb a nicely decorated farm to table restaurant, each quite different, but both serving local produce.
Finca Narbona

Finca Narbona: winery as a national monument

The old Finca Narbona in Carmelo is a National Historical Monument. Housing a winery, a chapel and a chalky-painted farm building, all of these edifices are a part of what is known to be the oldest building in Uruguay. The Estancia Narbona was founded in 1740 in the outskirts of Carmelo. The properties were recently bought by an Argentine businessman Eduardo ‘Pacha’ Canton and the wines under the Narbona label made there were launched with the 2012 vintage. To that date the Narbona label had been produced at another historic estate – Bodegas Irurtia.
New winery in the building process

Reviving history in Uruguay

With the new ownership and high ambitions of the Argentine Pacha Canton building of a new winery was inevitable. The space inside the historical building was too limited to accommodate the needs of the increasingly demanding consumers looking for high quality wines in South America. Oak barrels as well as other modern winemaking equipment are voracious residents of any serious winery. The new stone building looks very simple, true to its rural setting.
Vintage car
The original winery building is like a museum full of objects from its previous owners. The founder of the winery at Finca Narbona was a Naples-born Aragonese Narbonne who came to Uruguay from Italy and established his own finca in Carmelo in 1740. After a long time of decline, the premises were bought and revived recently by ‘Pacha’, who also owns the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo. An ideal marriage of a hotel and a farm. The guests coming from all corners of the world appreciate having such an attraction near to their resort. The Finca Narbona near Punta del Este also is conveniently located in the proximity of a number of hotels including the luxurious Brazilian-owned Fasano del Piedras.
Old style scale

Narbona wines

The youthful female winemaker Valeria Chiola has plenty of experience from her studies in Italy as well as from her parents’ winery near Punta del Este. She is well-known in the boutique size wine circles of Uruguay. Recently, the legendary wine consultant Michel Rolland was hired to improve the saleability of the wines, but it is still Valeria who is in charge of the winemaking.
Narbona vines
The plants at the old property are new and were imported from France. These are mostly Tannat and Pinot Noir, but also small quantities of Viognier and Gewürztraminer are planted. In particular the Viognier is highly promising as our tasting experience proved. The Pinot was also well-made, gushing with red fruits on the palate.
The underground tasting room is located inside the wine cellar bearing an authentic and cosy ambiance. Sitting in the dark room surrounded by giant hanging legs of ham and maturing wheels of cheese may deter vegetarians but it feels real artisanal.
 tasting room at Finca NarbonaTannat Luz de Luna Finca Narbona
Narbona is not the sole winery in Uruguay which is also a farm making its own cheese, ham, jams, pasta, grappa (a grape spirit originating in Italy) and anything else that they can grow and convert into a popular delicacy. Nevertheless, it is one of the best ones, and the new owner deserves praise for upgrading it. The local as well as international residents, that were attracted by the Uruguay’s relative stability and safety, buy the creamy fresh yoghurts, milk, provolone cheese, high-quality pasta and of course the wine at this winery cum farm.

Irurtia: hundred years of winemaking in Uruguay

Irurtia was one of the first wineries in Uruguay. Now under the wings of the fourth generation of the Irurtia family the winery celebrated its centenary in 2013. During a tour with the wonderful María Noel Irurtia, who was very friendly, we chatted also with the winemaker at the tasting table. Great news for the non-Spanish speaking crowd is that her English is pretty good guaranteeing a smooth visit.
Bodega Irurtia established in 1913
Like Finca Narbona, whose wines used to be made at the Bodega Irurtia, it is located in the Carmelo area in Uruguay. The winery is reachable either by a ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia and then by car or from Montevideo by car. The road trip is a bit longer because the capital city of Uruguay, Montevideo, is much further from Carmelo than Argentina.
While in Europe the First World War was rumbling, in Uruguay wine was freely being harvested. The uninterrupted centenary history of the Bodega Familia Irurtia shows how remote and therefore detached from the world’s skirmishes the country is. Good for the wines since it is rare to find any wines dated from the two World Wars’ vintages today.
1930s wine harvest machine
The founder Don Lorenzo Irurtia came to Uruguay from the Basque region in Spain in the  late 19th century. Together with other immigrants he pioneered the planting of the French Tannat grape that still today thrives in south-west France (particularly in Madiran). The person credited with brining the grape to the country was Don Lorenzo’s fellow citizen Pascual Harriague after whom was the Tannat locally named. It is said that Tannat in Uruguay today is more similar to that one long time ago popular in France, where now Tannat stays in the shade of the long tail of preferred varietals such as the Cabernets, Merlots, Chardonnays, Syrah and others.
Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s, that Uruguay produced fine wines. María Noel Irurtia admitted saying: “We still have vines cultivated by my great grand father Lorenzo Irurtia, they are more than 100 years old. These plants produced grapes for wine, but this is not for wine today because of regulations, since these are not recognised varietals for wine production in Uruguay.” But, she added: “From our older European vines like the Cabernet Sauvignon that my father imported in the early `70 we make an exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon and use it in our better blends of fine wine.”
Don Lorenzo Irurtia and his wife
Dusty 1985 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon
Today the family employs modern winemaking techniques and strict quality standards to their wines so they can be sold abroad. From Canada and as far as to Hong Kong (the Bodega participated at the Vinexpo Hong Kong in 2012).
The sleek and modern Km.0 (Kilometro zero) range confirms that the wines from Irurtia are worth a try. Notably, I was intrigued by the beauty of the Viognier that one would not expect in the country known mostly for its fruity yet bold and highly tannic Tannats.
Irurtia Km 0 wine range

María Irurtia disclosed that “The international prize we are really proud is our first prize, in Sofia – Bulgaria in 1966. My father received the ‘Ordre du mérit Agricole’ from the French Ministere De Affaires Agricoles.”
It is not only the Tannat or the multiple awards reaping old-vines of the Cabernet Sauvignon that the family cherishes the most as María confessed: “Our most prized wine is the Botrytis Excellence Late Harvest 2002 which obtained many Gold and Great Gold Medals and our Reserva del Virrey Tannat 2002.” Trying both of these wines tin their younger vintages I was particularly impressed by the Botrytis Excellence. This sweet honeyed grape nectar was so luscious with the high acidity necessary to make this style of wine excellent for long ageing. Irurtia indeed achieved excellence with its Botrytis Excellence!

Reservation by mail at
Visits every day at 11AM & 3PM.
Carmelo, Colonia, Uruguay [GPS: -33.989746,-58.259447]

Pura: Uruguayan food sample at Four Seasons hotel in Carmelo

Pura restaurant
Atmosphere: Nostalgic, rustic, hunting lodge design. It is all wood, black and white old pictures, animal trophies and a giant grill dominating the back of the restaurant that remind you that you dine in the midst of wildness. The natural setting adds lots of charm as you can listen to the night creatures humming in the forest surrounding the hotel. Dress code for day is resort casual and for evening smart casual. Families are welcome and depending on the season there can be lots of kids.
Food: Seasonal, international cuisine influenced starters, traditional BBQ. Dishes are being cooked either in the wood-burning clay oven or in the indoor barbecue pit, where the traditional Uruguayan asado is being made. The food is tasty rather than fancy and that is what I appreciate at this restaurant the most. The ingredients were of a great quality so I would not mark it down for the slightly amateurish or perhaps down-to-earth presentation (it made my home-cooking arrangements on the plate look quite competitive).
Melted brie salad
The right balance of healthy and tasty ingredients is perhaps the best combination one can wish for a meal to have. The Melted brie salad on a large crostini with a generous portion of greens, marinated tomatoes and artichokes can fit this benefits-offering description. The Melted brie salad supplies you with vitamins, minerals and calcium for your bones while it is still tasting very good (a generous portion of great olive oil brings the salad a level up as well as it adds healthy monounsaturated fats good for your heart as well as Vitamin E).
A more filling and indulgent for some of you might be the Creamy soup with tender scallops. I loved this soup based on pumpkin, olive oil, scallops and some spices. There was a tiny amount of cream but it was not like the many of the French cream soups that are super-heavy due to the high amount of cream in them. The scallops melted in my mouth like a lollypop, they were so smooth yet rich given to the process of pan frying them. The only drawback was perhaps too much oil in the soup, but it is possible that the chef simply wanted you to have enough of the healthy olive oil (to balance the upcoming harm to your heart off) before indulging in a chunk of meat in your main course.
Creamy soup with scallops
From the main courses, unless you are a vegetarian, you should go for the asado (Latin American word for BBQ). You can choose from a wide variety of meats. Go for the beef, lamb or the pork – all from Uruguay. The grass-fed animals have tender – no stressed meat and usually are very juicy even when cooked ‘well-done’. The pork was served on a mountain of super-thin sliced fries and garnished with herbs and oil. I am not a big pork eater (unless it is blood in the sausage – [perhaps it sounds even more weird for some of you) but my fiancé who is an avid food critic (better than me but he does not write about it, prefers the easier way – the talking) was overly satisfied and got very excited about meat from Uruguay.
Asado: south American BBQ
Drinks: The wine list os good, but not good enough for a Four Seasons property. There is a good choice of local and Argentinian wines though so follow the advice of the wine waiter and you will get the right wine for your food. Do not expect too much knowledge though, we got all the information about the wine ordered when he was reading the informative back label – what a smart thing the wineries in usually Uruguay do! I have to give him a credit for selecting a wine that we enjoyed very much. The El Preciado from Bodegas Castillo Viejo that was labeled something like a wine from Burgundy (1er -Cru??) and Rioja (Gran Reserva) at the same time was full-bodied, fruity and simply enjoyable. Do not expect a super complex blend of Burgundy with Gran Reserva Rioja though. Although it was a complex blend of Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon partially aged for 15 months in a mix of new French and American oak – one cannot attempt to “make it” more complex – the soil and overall terroir did not allow for a very complex wine. It was well balanced and tasty though.
El Preciado red wine
Cuisine: Uruguayan
Visit: December 2012
Price: High (at a five-star hotel it cannot be cheap, but it is not as expensive as at the Four Seasons in Paris or London although it is much more rustic rather than gastronomic).
Opening hours: Daily for lunch: 11:30 am – 7:00 pm; Dinner: 7:00 pm – 11:30 pm.
Address: Four Seasons Resort Carmelo Uruguay, Ruta 21, km 262, Carmelo, Dpto. de Colonia, Uruguay
Contact: Tel.+598 (4542) 9000

Isidora: dine and admire the port in Punta del Este

At Isidora they want to please you without any molecular or gastronomic fuss. The food is genuine and tasty, which is the opposite approach from its neighbouring restaurant (no naming here), where we were sent by our hotel (Fasano) concierge at first. Either the concierge does not understand good food or the owner must be his friend.
Dismayed, we peeked into Isidora and were immediately greeted by a friendly waiter who seated us to a table of our liking – that is what I call attentive and pleasant service! The choice is wide and vegetarian-friendly.
Fried cheese with chutney
You can start with a hearty plate such as the Fried cheese served with a small green salad and sweet chutney. The Italian style cheese from a local farm was delicious, tender and gooey enough, so it was very amusing to watch the happy face of my fiancée wrapped in the sticky strings of this surely delicious cheese. I had a taste and must confirm it was like my favorite childhood dish (and of many Czech kids and still of some adults), the “Smažený sýr“. My mum was harassed every Saturday, since it was the one day of the week we could choose the items of our lunch (Sundays we were tortured with a rabbit that to our father’s disdain me and my sister despised), to make this delicacy for us.
The Panfried squids with spices and vegetables were also tasty. Not too chewy, but rather cooked just enough to be enjoyably munched by our youthful strong teeth (I am not sure how I would manage them having my grandmother’s teeth). A lovely dish, ideally paired with a refreshing and fruity Albariño by the popular Uruguayan producer Bouza, that we ordered.
Pan fried local fish
Another great choice from the main courses was on the olive oil Pan fried local fish served with fresh herbs and grilled vegetables. It is a healthy choice, although the fish is big so fills one up noticeably. The white fish was similar to a Mediterranean sea bass or sea bream. It had a soft texture, was not flaky, but also had quite a lot of bones. The later took so much of my effort that I felt like I have worked the calories from the fish out leaving some space for something sweet.
My chocolate addiction widened my pupils when I peaked at the deserts offer. The Dark Chocolate Volcano is like a spell for me, I don’t care if they serve it with an ok ice cream or fresh cream, unless my plate contains the rich cup-shaped cocoa cake exploding with liquid dark chocolate once your spoon dives into it. I should write a poem about this passion of mine mentioning the best edible volcanoes I have relished so far. I might post it once my creative fluids overflow with chocolate. Nevertheless, at Isidora the chocolate sweet heaven was perfect and I would recommend it to any choco-obsessed maniac like me.
Dark chocolate volcano
The atmosphere is casual, friendly, comfortable and red all around you. Red walls and chairs add a jolly and festive feel to this spacious restaurant. Young, old, families and couples – anyone dines at Isidora ( just oligarchs probably swam across the Atlantic). You can wear jeans and t-shirt and you will be fine. Enjoying the food and friendly service with wine seems to be the main mission of this restaurant.
Bouza white Albariño wine from Uruguay
Drinks: The wine list is interesting if you are eager to explore the local wines. We went for a bottle of well-priced Albariño 2010 from Bouza, one of the most popular and reliable producers ow wine from Uruguay. It was quite low in alcohol, fruity, aromatic and ideal with seafood, fish as well as on its own as a cocktail.
If you rather prefer something proven, then go for a bottle of white or red Malbec from Argentina. The later is great with meat and accomplishes the Chocolate Volcano perfectly. The prices at Isidora are very reasonable so do not hesitate to order any wine your palate desires since the mark-up is not bad.
Cuisine: International, seafood
Visit: December 2012
Price: Medium (Convenient location in the town centre that does not just “milk” tourists but serves good food with amiable service).
Opening hours: Daily from 11am. Open even off-the-season.
Address: Harbours Rambla & 21 st. street, Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Contact: Tel: + (598) 42 44 96 46; email:

La Huella: the best beach dining at Punta del Este

La Huella beach view
Bohemian, rustic and trendy, La Huella is one of the most desirable restaurants in the area of Punta del Este and for that it attracts anyone in-the-know. The blend of international celebrities next to great vibe and delicious food seeking travelers and local villas owners takes care of entertainment. A definite people watching place.
The restaurant is located right on the beach, so I would not recommend ladies to wear super-thin heels either for the comfort reasons as well as looking out-of-the-place. Imagine St Tropez 20-30 years ago, sandy dunes and Le Club 55 – the hotspot of the rich and famous for decades and you will get La Huella. Its chill-out ambiance, rustic wooden bar with chess-pieces peaking over your head, open kitchen and grill back room and large terrace facing the beach will transfer even the sturdiest workaholic into the realm of nostalgic dreams. Beach clothes and shorts during lunch are fine – long pants and mosquito spray in the evening if you sit outside.
Bar at La Huella
The bar area invites for a cocktail before or after your meal. The selection of wines from South America is good and the wine waiter is willing to advise you. We went purely Uruguayan with a green and fresh tasting Sauvignon Blanc 1oo Años and later a red blend of Tempranillo with the local tannic Tannat from Bouza, one of the most famous producers in the country. The Sauvignon Blanc was perfect for a light lunch drinking, the red blend was perhaps too rich and heavy, but drinkable with the steak and it inspired me to order the Chocolate Volcano twice!
Sandy entrance to La Huella
The food is focused on fresh, authentic and tasty ingredients. I have eaten at La Huella twice. After three out of the three people, recommended me eating here, and questioning “Where would you eat around Punta del Este on your birthday?” always yield “La Huella”, I knew this place must be outstanding. Perhaps I was biased. After all the bottles of wines I consumed there it is entirely possible as I tend to like everything after three glasses of this god-blessed liquid, but I am sure about one thing: You must eat there at least once when in Uruguay. The food is a mix of Peruvian, Argentine and Uruguayan cuisines. Fresh and mostly local ingredients are used in preparation and the cooks try to make the plates look cool.
From the peruvian fare I loved the White fish ceviche s well as the Potato causa filled like lasagne with a creamy layer of salmon, mayonnaise and onions. Both were authentic, no fuss and simply delicious.
Potato causaWhite fish ceviche
Warm goat cheese saladCheese pizetta
Another great starter is the Warm goat cheese salad. Bitter and limey roquette with crisp tomato balance the milky and fatty cheese with a fire burned coating served on a crunchy bread bun.  The only disappointment was the squid appetizer with beetroot sauce, the sauce was the problem as it did not match the squids at all – too much creativity can kill a dish often and my previous experience at another restaurant in Uruguay confirmed that they generally need to figure out beetroot quite a bit.
La Huella can do pizza very well! If you continue in a starter marathon then get the Goat cheese pizzetta on a thin crisp oval dough as it is not just a great companion to wine but also a perfect crispy snack to share. They get seasonal seafood so if they got the White clams that I have ordered try them as they are really fresh, juicy and palate pleasing. Perfect with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc!
Seafood as well as meat dishes are the restaurant’s strengths. From the main courses I can recommend any steak as the meat is local, without hormones, just grass-fed, wild-nature raised and above all super tasty. The wood-fired grill throws a magic spell of yumminess on each meat that passes its heating throat. The grilled fish is also good, but to my taste the meat is better. After all living in Mediterranean can turn anyone in a fierce fish critic especially if you have the privilege of eating at our friend’s restaurant Le Bacon in Cap d’Antibes.
Literary, the cherry on the cake are the desserts. I might not look like that but I had two desserts on my own here – the Chocolate Volcano is an absolute indulgent blast that keeps your energy fired up until early hours and I had it replayed twice. The cacao-based cake hides a liquid secret. As your spoon cuts through the cake a stream of dark chocolate runs out. I am seduced, each time my nose detects the warm rich chocolate scent!
Price: Medium to high (La Huella is perhaps the most popular dining spot in the entire Punte del Este, so it can charge what it wants, although it is not over the top and the food as well as the service end up being a great value for money).
 Out of season only for lunch, from mid-December till April also for dinner. Call and reserve a table ahead.
 Playa Brava, José Ignacio, Uruguay.
 +(59) 8 4867 5432

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