Sister Act

Overshadowed by its glamorous sibling to the west, 
Montevideo has a distinct flavour all its own by Remy Scalza

A little sibling rivalry would seem inevitable in Montevideo. The diminutive Uruguayan capital lies just a hundred or so miles across the muddy shallows of the Rio de la Plata from big sister Buenos Aires. The family resemblance is unmistakable. Both cities tango. Both share the same predilection for big steaks and bold wines. Both feel more southern European than South American. But while Buenos Aires has long basked in the international limelight, Montevideo has quietly carried on in the shadows – the quiet, bespectacled sister who, in her own way, is irresistible. 

I’m pushing deeper down a cobblestone side street near the old part of the city, squeezing through the masses gathered for Sunday morning’s market. Wares here have little rhyme or reason. Aquarium fish give way to stalls of vegetables, then dusty records, then old doorknobs. On either side loom the mouldering facades of Montevideo’s Art Deco past, fancy balconies and flourishes evoking a long-gone era of prosperity. I comb block after block, digging deep into the assembled flotsam of the city – rusted tools, old photographs, yellowed magazines – finding nothing of ostensible value. 

Where other cities flaunt their charms, Montevideo insists you search hers out. There are no postcard vistas here: the city’s boardwalk winds past delta waters the exact colour of chocolate milk. For cuisine, you’ll find variations on just three dishes: steaks, pasta and a pizza that comes with no cheese (all of which are exceptional). The national art form, murga, is a perverse hybrid of musical theatre and barbershop quartet, dense and inscrutable. And maté, the loose-leaf tea sipped obsessively by every single Montevidean, proves bitter on first taste. But among the pantheon of overhyped and overtouristed South American capitals, Montevideo stands alone – unhip, intact and gloriously unmarketable. 

The downtown market is starting to break up. In the heat of the afternoon, restaurant patios fill up with old men drinking whisky neat and families assembled over plates piled with meat. I find my rental car, navigate the narrow downtown streets and jump on the rambla, the coastal road that rims the city. I’m headed for wine country, another of Montevideo’s closeted charms. While Argentina, with its robust Malbecs and big-shouldered terroir, gets most of the press, Uruguay has quietly been cultivating its own grape for the last few centuries: the complex, heavenly red known as Tannat. 

As I exit the city, neat rows of vines emerge on either side of the highway, marching across low, rolling hills. Down a dusty side road I eventually find Establecimiento Juanicó, the venerable old winery that makes more Tannat than anywhere in the country. I had booked a spot at their afternoon tasting, but that may have been overkill: I’m the only one here. The guide sits me down in a dark room redolent of centuries of spilled wine, explaining how the cellar below was built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1830s. I work my way through a few surprisingly good reds before getting to what I’ve come for: the Tannat. It’s velvety in the glass, almost black and drinks big and bright. It could easily be the world’s next Merlot, next Cab Sav, next Malbec – but for reasons of scale and accessibility, it’s more likely to stay my little secret.

I now realize my guide, who has been drinking right along with me and likely had a head start, is getting drunk. Her Spanish grows more effusive. She tops off her glass and opens another bottle of her favourite Tannat. Elsewhere, this might be a fatal breach of protocol. Not here. Nobody else is stopping by today. n

Weather November through April is dry and mild; June through September are uncannily similar to Vancouver winters.

Can’t Miss Wine tasting at Establecimiento Juanicó. Expect generous pours, hand-cured meats and Uruguay’s signature grape, Tannat.

Best Bed For a taste of life in one of the city’s grand old residential suburbs, try Martí Apart Hotel, a few blocks from Montevideo’s best beach.

Cool Eats Bar 62, with its massive, wood-fired parrilla barbecue, serves creative takes on Montevideo’s classic steaks and pasta.