Every jet-setter worth his table at Le Club 55 at the height of summer knows the name Jose Ignacio. No, “Jose Ignacio” isn’t a person, but a former fishing village-turned-seaside town.
The place 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, Jose Ignacio is infi nitely 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, sand and surf; and from eating too much pulpito (baby octopus) at the barefoot chic-but-uber trendy 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 farther inland. The reason? Argentine tycoon Alejandro Bulgheroni’s gentrification – or, given the scale, glorification might prove more apt – of a rural hamlet called Pueblo Garzon.
Having snapped up an initial 2,200ha of land, the billionaire – whose interests span oil and gas, and ranches, and who is also, incidentally, the biggest blueberry grower in Argentina – has ambitious plans.
“I believe Garzon 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 meet at another of his properties and business interests – Colinas de Garzon, 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 d’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.
“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.”
– Alejandro Bulgheroni
After all, before Bulgheroni began to invest heavily in Garzon, it was merely a shell of a former railway settlement, a veritable ghost town.
Now, Garzon 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 in all the glamorous titles, from Saveur to Travel + Leisure. Latin America’s most celebrated chef, Francis Mallmann, even owns a restaurant and bijou hotel in the pueblo, while local boutique Allium boasts wares that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy New York City or London store.
Yet, take a quiet drive around the land and you’d be transported right back to the days when South America was untamed and free. Carpinchos, or capybara, the world’s largest rodents and a highlight of any Pantanal expedition, can be seen resting in groups by waterways, as well as nandu, or rheas, that roam the land 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. 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,” he adds.
Certainly, as with all Bulgheroni’s projects, a great sense of style is in order.
Visitors to Bodega Garzon are 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. Built at a cost of US$85 million (S$122 million), the spectacular temple-like design of the winery is reason enough to warrant a visit to Garzon.
The creme de la creme of the continent certainly turned up without hesitation for his winery’s grand opening, which took place in March last year. Three past presidents of Uruguay (including the enigmatic Jose Mujica); Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain; and the Bishop of Montevideo were among the slew of Latin American luminaries who attended.
Although Bodega Garzon 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 national 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.
Tannat is deep, dense and almost inky. Those privileged enough to get their hands on a good bottle (Bodega Garzon’s Reserve Tannat is a well-above-the-par introduction to the grape) will fi nd it exuding delicious notes of chocolate and tobacco, coupled with grippy, firm tannins that make it a wonderful match with red meat.
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A caveat: Familiarise yourself with tannat with a notable label, as its naturally harsh tannins may not be a palate-pleaser.
Another interesting wine to discover in Bodega Garzon’s portfolio would be its albarino, a traditional Galician grape that does seemingly well in the local Garzon terroir.
Bulgheroni and his team, which include the celebrated Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini as consultant, are also experimenting with different varietals in different parcels of land to see what happens.
“Personally, there is a pinot noir we’ve produced that I already love very much, so expect to see a 2015 Pinot Noir Reserve as part of our off erings soon,” he shares.
Those with green leanings would also appreciate Bulgheroni’s quest for Bodega Garzon to be the first winery in the world to attain Leadership in Energy and Environmental 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.”
He adds: “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.”
Given the remarkable (and exceedingly sophisticated) growth already 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 Garzon endeavour best. A brave, and burgeoning, new world is in the offing. For him, as well as for Uruguay.
PHOTOS Bodega Garzon. For more information, visit http://bodegagarzon.com/en/