The horse-drawn wagon on the outskirts of town was the first sign that Carmelo was not going to be the sort of wine town I'd visited before, but, like most early signs, I didn't recognize it in the moment. It was the first vehicle we'd seen since disembarking the ferry from Buenos Aires an hour before; the crowds who'd shared the hour-long boat ride to Uruguay all seemed to evaporate while we dealt with the car rental inside the terminal, presumably headed south to Montevideo or further to Punta del Este, a splashy resort town on the Atlantic coast.
Though we'd booked Carmelo for its burgeoning reputation as a top-notch wine destination, we shared the road there with no one but grazing horses and cows and neon green songbirds that sat on the sun-warm asphalt, scattering as we zipped by.
A dusty old town with a population of just 18,000, Carmelo has only five wineries. When we rolled through in search of lunch en route to our resort, the streets were virtually deserted. "There are many people in Montevideo that still don't know where Carmelo is," Tomas Pascazi, a young Argentina-born winemaker's assistant at Narbona Wine Lodge, remarked as he poured glasses of bone-dry tannat rosé in the 107-year-old cellar a couple of nights after we arrived.
It's both easy and impossible to understand why this is.
Settled in the late 1800s by Basque immigrants who brought with them an obscure French grape called tannat, Carmelo feels delightfully frozen in time, down to the still-operational 1928 Model T – Uruguay is practically a living museum for vintage cars – parked in front of Familia Irurtia, a fourth-generation winery that's the area's largest.
By Day 2 of our visit, I'd learned to stop running out of our tastings to grab a photo each time I heard hooves on the gravel side roads, because everyone in the area farms by horse and buggy – you can even rent them in town.
If you've been to wine tasting anywhere else, you're best to check your expectations at the ferry dock. While it had been recommended that we book our tastings in advance (via e-mail and with help from Google Translate), it became clear at our first appointment that this was more to ensure someone other than the family dog would be available to greet us than to beat the crowds you might find in Niagara or Napa.
There was just one other car parked in the dirt lot when we pulled up outside El Legado, a family-run winery with a vineyard so small that its owners are able to harvest all its syrah and tannat grapes in just a single day.
As Maria Marta Barberis Cassoni, whose father-in-law purchased the land nearly 50 years ago with dreams of becoming a winemaker, led us across the grounds, she pointed out the vines he had planted decades before – his vision was stalled by the political and economic turmoil that proliferated in the country through the last century – and the ones her husband, Bernardo Marzuca, began to cultivate in 2007, finally bringing his father's dream to fruition. Bernardo's older brother was meant to be the winemaker, she confided, "but he loves golf and hates wine."
Back inside, Maria Marta pulled out a heaving album full of photos of her sons growing up and the restoration her family had done on the 140-year-old farmhouse on the property, and got to work slicing cheeses, prosciutto and salami for a picada, a traditional Uruguayan snack plate. Her dogs darted through the tasting room and out onto the terrace while we flipped through the photos and nibbled and sipped, first a toasty, complex syrah and then Uruguay's signature tannat, so-named because it is so intensely tannic you can practically chew it.
"You like?" asked Bernardo, who at some point wandered in and joined us (and then apologetically kissed us goodbye when he later had to duck out to lead a couple of Americans on a tour). "Many people do not like tannat. It's …" he gestured with hands, trying to find the right word in English, "… difficult." When we answered affirmatively, Maria Marta led us back into El Legado's wine cave and proffered a long glass thief, which she passed to each of us to draw samples of a still-aging syrah-tannat blend.
I was startled when I glanced at my phone and realized that 2 1/2 hours had passed and we were late for our next tasting. That didn't stop us, though, from pulling over to the edge of the red-dirt road somewhere along the way to take photos of lemon trees and cows lounging on the grass – but then, I was quickly getting the sense that, in these parts, a 3:30 appointment could mean anything after noon. In any case, Diego Vecchio, the owner of Almacen de la Capilla winery, didn't seem the least bit perturbed when we finally ambled in, 40 minutes late and pausing to check out an antique crush pad and wine-bottling equipment – still in use, he told us – on our way in from the parking lot.
If El Legado, which produced its first vintage in 2011, represents the new guard of Carmelo wines, then Almacen de la Capilla, founded in 1855, is its great-great-ancestor. Not that there's a tremendous difference. The tiniest winery in the region, Almacen de la Capilla produces just 250 bottles a year of each of its five wines: tannat, of course, and also chardonnay, cabernet, syrah merlot and an intensely floral muscatel-based rosé.
Diego led us down a rickety staircase tucked behind a trapdoor to tour the cellar, and then back upstairs to the old-fashioned general store that feels more like a movie set than the shop and tasting room as which it serves. Though most locals call the winery Bodega Cordano for its founding family, the name Almacen de la Capilla means grocery store of the chapel after the colonial church that still stands just across the street.
The shop, to this day, sells takeaway picnics and artisanal local products such as dulce de leche and olive oils. Diego's wife, Ana Paula Cordano – who is Almacen's winemaker and the great-great-granddaughter of its founder – rang up our bill, tapping it out on a hulking cash register that appeared to be as old as the bodega itself.
But for all its sleepy charm, Carmelo isn't the complete backwater it may seem. Just two hours from Buenos Aires by car and ferry, it's cottage country for wealthy portenos. When we took a break from wine tasting to meander on horseback along the banks of the river, our guide led us back to the resort by way of a long road lined with airy, modern homes that would soon be filled with Argentines on summer vacation, here to enjoy Carmelo's languorous pleasures.
But whether we were at the resort spa, which incorporates tannat grapes, known for their hefty antioxidant power, into treatments, or relaxing by the pool, where grape vines owned by one of the local wineries creep practically to water's edge, wine was never far from the agenda – and for good reason. Uruguay exports only about 10 per cent of its total, tiny wine yield, meaning that our long, leisurely winery visits weren't just enjoyable; they were the only way we'd ever get to taste most of these wines.
"Who else did you visit?" demanded Maria Irurtia when we arrived at her family's namesake winery on our last full day. She seemed satisfied when we named all five of the vineyards. "If you came two or three nights and just visited me, I would ask what you're doing here," she told us approvingly.
"Here in Carmelo, we have wineries and that's all. After that, you can hear the birds and take the sun. Two or three days, that's perfect." Perfect, indeed.
If you go
Air Canada flies directly to Buenos Aires six times weekly. The Uruguayan port city of Colonia del Sacramento is about an hour from Buenos Aires via regularly scheduled Buquebus ferry service (six times daily, from about 400 Argentine pesos or about $35 each way). From Colonia, it's an easy one-hour drive to Carmelo. U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Uruguay (and many wineries prefer cash).
Where to stay
With its 44 bungalows scattered through a pine and eucalyptus forest on the edge of the Rio de la Plata, the Hyatt Carmelo Resort and Spa is an utterly tranquil and private option within 10 minutes of Carmelo's wineries. We loved the cozy tapas bar, with its long local wine list, and complimentary baking lessons where we made alfajores, a South American sandwich cookie, with the hotel's pastry chef. Doubles from $260 (U.S.) including breakfast.
Where to sip
Winery visits in Carmelo are more like long social visits than the quick tastings of bigger North American wine regions. Tastings are generally owner-led and fees include generous wine pours (usually full glasses) and a picada snack plate. Reservations are recommended.
With just one hectare of vineyards and a cozy family vibe, El Legado's elegant syrah made this winery a trip favourite but also the site of our biggest regret – with advance reservations, the owners will host guests for a Uruguayan-style asado dinner. Wine tasting and picada, $25 (U.S.)
Dating back to 1909, the grounds of Narbona Wine Lodge are full of nifty artifacts (including a garage full of antique cars). Save time to wander and to dine on handmade ravioli and other fresh pasta in the terrific on-site restaurant.
Campotinto Winery, the newest in Carmelo, also has an excellent farm-to-table restaurant on its grounds and has begun producing new wines including viognier and sparklers.
Round out your trip with visits to the largest and smallest wineries in the area, Familia Irurtia and Almacen de la Capilla. Led by Maria Irurtia (who speaks excellent English), the Irurtia tour gives a terrific overview of the region. A visit to Almacen de la Capilla provides a glimpse into Carmelo's quaint early days.