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Why Argentine tycoon Alejandro Bulgheroni Built a New Winery in Uruguay

He's bringing big money and global interest to South America’s youngest wine country and raising the profile of the Tannat varietal to new heights.

Every jet-setter worth his table at Le Club 55 at the height of summer knows the name José Ignacio.

No, ‘José Ignacio’ isn’t a person but, rather, a fishing village-turned-seaside town that is now regarded as the Hamptons of the Southern Hemisphere by the world’s rich, titled and fabulous, ranging from aristocrats to the Rolling Stones. Located on the southern coast of Uruguay, José Ignacio is infinitely more chic than the more well-known Punta del Este, just a short drive away.

The pleasures of this little patch of paradise facing the Atlantic Ocean, traditionally, revolve around sun, surf and sand; from eating too much pulpito (baby octopus) at the barefoot chic-but-über branché La Huella, to attempting to walk all the way along the golden sands of the uninterrupted coastline to Brazil (yes, it’s indeed possible).

But, of late, the allure definitely lies further inland. The reason? Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni’s gentrification – or, given the scale, ‘glorification’ might prove more apt – of a rural hamlet called Pueblo Garzón. Having snapped up an initial 2,200ha of land, Bulgheroni, a tycoon whose interests span oil and gas, ranches and who is also, incidentally, the biggest blueberry grower in Argentina, has ambitious plans.

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Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni is investing heavily in Uruguay.

“I believe Garzón represents a new wine region, a new winery and a new concept in agriculture. It has been our goal from early on to introduce state-of-the-art technology to enhance our vineyards and produce premium wines,” he says, as we met in another of his properties and business interests – Colinas de Garzón, a stunning olive oil grove and estate.

Although Bulgheroni is certainly not the first tycoon to have viticultural aspirations (LVMH’s Bernard Arnault owns, among many others, Chateau Yquem and Moet et Chandon, while Richemont Group’s Johann Rupert presides over L’Ormarins in his native South Africa), he is certainly one of the few bold enough to practically create and establish a brand new appellation – and in a young winemaking country, to boot. After all, before Bulgheroni began to invest heavily in Garzón, it was merely a shell of a former railway settlement, a veritable ghost town.

(RELATED: The scion to the Bulgari family is also venturing into viticulture.)

Now, Garzón has and continues to draw the chic and the curious, while making headlines in the business papers due to the tycoon’s interest and sizeable investment as well as all the glamorous titles, from Saveur to Travel + Leisure. Latin America’s most celebrated chef, Francis Mallmann, even owns a world-class restaurant and bijou hotel in the pueblo while the local boutique, Allium, boasts wares that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy New York City or London store.

And, yet, take a quiet drive around the land and you’d be transported right back to the days when South America was wild, untamed and free. Carpinchos, better known as capybara, the world’s largest rodents and a highlight of any Pantanal expedition, can be seen resting in groups by waterways, as well as ñandú, rheas, that roam the land freely.

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Carpinchos, or capybara, can be seen roaming the grounds freely.

“Overall, in the wine business, I found a lot of qualities that attracted me greatly,” observes Bulgheroni. “It’s not just wine but the hospitality that surrounds it, the development of a new region and, of course, the style of life. And, being able to do it with my family makes it even better! Yes, of course, you need a lot of capital but what is more important is to feel emotion about what you do… and when you do something with soul, you will find a lot of satisfaction.”

Certainly, as with all Bulgheroni does, a great sense of style is in order. Visitors to Bodega Garzón will be greeted by an intensely modern, 200,000 sq ft structure rising up from the undulating landscape, 160m above sea level, in the hills. “It was in 1999 that my wife Bettina and I discovered our ‘little Tuscany’ in Uruguay,” he adds.

(RELATED: First female winemaker in 500-year history of storied French winery, Hospices de Beaune, talks about the climb.)

Built at a cost of USD 85 million, the spectacular temple-like design of the winery is reason enough to warrant a visit to Garzón. The crème de la crème of the continent certainly turned up without hesitation for his grand opening, which took place earlier in March this year. Three past Presidents of Uruguay (including the enigmatic José Mujica), José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain, and the Bishop of Montevideo were among the slew of Latin American luminaries who’d attended.

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Beauty and a grand sense of style mark the Bulgheroni way.

Although Bodega Garzón is his first Uruguayan vineyard, Bulgheroni counts several others as part of his oenological portfolio, including three in Argentina alone, Tuscany, Bordeaux and the Napa Valley. But it is here that he aims to elevate the status of Tannat – Uruguay’s de facto nTannational grape varietal – to greater heights. Although the origins of Tannat are still disputed (many believe it to be Basque, though others say the varietal originated from the foothills of the French Pyrenees), it is, today, universally acknowledged as Uruguay’s flagship grape, the same way Malbec is Argentina’s and Carmenere is Chile’s.

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Inspecting the vineyards at dusk.

Deep, dense and almost inky, Tannat is near-impossible to find in Malaysia but, those privileged enough to get a hands on a good bottle (Bodega Garzón’s Reserve Tannat is a well above par introduction to the grape) will find it exuding delicious notes of chocolate and tobacco, coupled with grippy, firm tannins that make it a wonderful match with red meat. A caveat – it is essential you embark on your discovery of Tannat with a notable label as its naturally harsh tannins may not be an easy palate-pleaser.

Another interesting wine to discover in Bodega Garzón’s portfolio would be its Albariño, a traditional Galician grape that does seemingly well in the local Garzón terroir. Bulgheroni and his team, who include the celebrated Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini as consultant, are also currently experimenting with different varietals in different parcels of land to “see what happens. Personally, there is a Pinot Noir we produced I already love very much, so expect to see a 2015 Pinot Noir Reserve as part of our offerings soon,” he shares.

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Expansive cellars at Bodega Garzón.

Those with green leanings would also appreciate Bulgheroni’s quest for Bodega Garzón to be the first winery in the world to attain LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification. “How energy is used is very important to me,” notes the tycoon. “I don’t believe wind or solar will exclusively replace fossil fuels in the next century or two, so we really need to use energy sources better. So now, we must not only focus on the wine, but also its complementary elements. There are many more things to do but I am lucky I am able to do it with my family. I also believe this is important for the region, for Uruguay. This country has tremendous potential for further development. The forces in this country are stable and this allows you the freedom to think long-term, which was an important factor when we decided to invest.”

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The team at Bodega Garzón are on a mission to elevate Tannat, Uruguay’s de facto national grape.

Given the remarkable (and exceedingly sophisticated) growth already palpably visible in what was once an abandoned railway settlement, it’s clear Bulgheroni’s Midas touch has come to town. Perhaps it is the words of Aldous Huxley that sum up the billionaire’s Garzón endeavour best. A brave, and burgeoning, new world is in the offing. For him, as well as Uruguay.

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