Our first lunch was laid out like a last supper. There, in the middle of a vineyard, underneath a billowing white cotton tent, a long wooden table had been set up, every inch of it covered with platters of food. There was the stuff you might expect at a picnic: bread, homemade and chewy; wedges of various cheeses arranged on wooden cutting boards; paper-thin slivers of prosciutto and salami. Then there were the local specialties — bowls of creamy spinach dip, stacks of freshly baked empanadas, stuffed with tuna and still steaming. And finally the wine, bottles of the heavy stuff this area was famous for and what brought us here in the first place.

We were eight that afternoon — my friends and I; our hosts Diego Vigano, his wife, Maria, and his father, Mauro Galeazzo; and, scampering around somewhere, Coco, the cherubic 2-year-old who had the run of the place. The setting was Posada CampoTinto, a gorgeous five-room boutique hotel set on a sprawling hill deep in the wine country of South America. It had taken an overnight flight (to Buenos Aires), an hour in a car (to the port), and three hours on a ferry across the Río de la Plata that separated us from Argentina. But as I took my seat next to Mr. Galeazzo, a dashing Italian gentleman of 87, I forgot my fatigue and concentrated on not stuffing all the food into my face at once.

“Welcome to Uruguay,” said Mr. Vigano de Narvaez, raising his glass and looking around the table. “Our population just went up since you arrived!”

Uruguay has made some news lately — all of it indicative of a country that wants you to enjoy yourself. First, Uruguay beat out Argentina as the highest per capita consumer of beef, a real victory for the smaller country in this meat-loving part of the world. Last year, The Economist named Uruguay Country of the Year, partly for legalizing same-sex marriage and partly for becoming the first country to legalize the production and the sale of marijuana, saying that those actions have “increased the global sum of human happiness at no financial cost.”

Sitting in the middle of the vineyard, surrounded by songbirds and a light breeze, it was hard not to feel the sum of human happiness in ways entirely unrelated to federal legislation. We were there to explore a nascent scene of great wine being made and the kind of easygoing, grass-roots vibe that comes from small communities birthing their own tourism industry.

This locus of Uruguayan wine country, though not the largest in this small nation, has been producing wine for generations — but has only recently gained attention as much for its wine as for being an awfully nice place to visit. It’s centered around the dusty old town of Carmelo, about 150 miles northwest of the capital of Montevideo and just across the Río de la Plata from Argentina. It’s a place of grassy roads, fields of grazing cattle, and hillsides of pale green vineyards. Wildflowers carpet the land and rosemary and lavender plants grow to be the size of small Fiats. It’s Tuscany in miniature.

The eight vineyards around Carmelo comprise about 1,000 acres, making the area slightly smaller than Uruguay’s biggest wine regions, which are outside Montevideo and Canelones. “Uruguay produces less than 100 million liters of wine every year, which means our entire country produces as much as one large winery in Argentina,” said Juan Andres Marichal, vice president of the National Wine Institute of Uruguay. “Our wineries aren’t big corporations. They are small and run by families.” If Argentina is the continent’s wine Goliath, Uruguay may be on its way to being its David — a formidable opponent. And a huge part of its appeal and success may be that it’s small and accessible.

We started early the next day. I met my friends (Lisa, who traveled with me from the States, and Astrid and Matias, who joined up with us in Argentina) on the terrace of CampoTinto for a breakfast of cheese, ham, toast and yerba mate, or simply mate (pronounced MAH-tay), which tastes like green tea if you added bitterness and removed joy. Calling it an acquired taste is generous, and yet it’s as popular in Uruguay and Argentina as steak. Mate is served in cups that look like hollowed-out gourds lined with silver, and Astrid and Matias drank theirs through a stainless steel pipe slash straw contraption. It is a beautiful, methodical, centuries-old tradition, and after one sip, I wanted no part of it.

Half an hour later, it was time to borrow bikes from the hotel and get our bearings.

Just down a dusty clay path from CampoTinto is Cordano Almacén de la Capilla, one of the oldest vineyards in Uruguay. “My great-great-grandfather came here in 1870 from Genoa,” said Ana Paula Cordano, as we stood in her wine shop and general store, which seem to be lifted from an earlier century.

We had ditched our bikes outside and were perusing jars of dulce de leche and baskets of homemade caramels made from wine. Antique glass bottles and scales lined the shelves, and dings from the ancient cash register added to the feeling that we had stepped into a saloon in the old west.

“He brought with him the Italian tradition of planting grapes,” Ms. Cordano said, referring to the vineyard’s founder. “We had to modernize, but we try to preserve tradition.” That tradition was on display in the field just behind the Cordano store — an antique wine press, old hazelnut trees, and just beyond the yard, cows and horses grazing in the pasture as they have for generations.

Only a few miles from CampoTinto — everything is only a bike ride away in Carmelo — is El Legado winery, one of the smaller, more elegant wineries in the area. “What we have in Carmelo is a microclimate,” said Bernardo Marzuca, the tan, crisply dressed owner of the winery, which he opened in 2007 (he released his first vintage in 2011). It was the following evening, and we were sitting at the heavy wooden table in his tasting room, surrounded by wine-stained oak barrels, platters of salami, olives and breadsticks, and antique revolvers hanging from the door frame. “The harvest in the rest of Uruguay is in March, but here in Carmelo, the grapes mature faster, so the harvest is two weeks earlier.” He stood up, and walked over to one of the formidable oak barrels next to us.

Mr. Marzuca pulled out the plug from the top of the barrel, inserted a long glass syringe, drew out some wine, nearly black, and dispensed it into a glass. The tannat grape, the pride of Uruguay, produces the “wine of the machos,” so-called because it’s quite strong. It was rich and lush and tasted faintly of berries.

“My father planted these vines,” said Mr. Marzuca, pride swelling in his voice as we walked through his vineyard at dusk. “Tannat grapes grow better in sandy areas, and I think they have grown quite well here.”

The sky had slipped from orange to red to black. It was time to head back to CampoTinto for the night. We piled into Mr. Vigano de Narvaez’s 1951 lime green Studebaker — almost everyone here drives a 1940s- or ’50s-era car (when not traveling by horseback or bicycle). “We like the old cars,” Mr. Vigano de Narvaez said over the rumble of the engine. “In Carmelo, if something is not broken, we do not fix it.”

The next day, we put our tannat expedition on hold and delved into another famous crop. In the shadow of wine countries all over the world, there is usually olive oil — and in southwestern Uruguay, the olive oil of reckoning comes from Familia Longo.

“This place was a real mess when I took it over,” said Dolores Longo, the owner. The following day, we were strolling through her olive grove, the late afternoon sun giving way to a slow chill in the air. “I didn’t know anything about how to make olive oil — I had to teach myself.”

What she learned eventually led her to make three different types of olive oil: grassy manzanilla, fruity arbequina and the pungent and peppery coratina arbequina. “If you don’t process the olives within a few hours, the oil suffers,” Ms. Longo said, as we ended our tour in her tasting room.

And yes, at this point, Uruguay was beginning to seem like a series of very cute, very charming tasting rooms. My palate, spoiled, indulged and exhausted, demanded a break.

“Punta Gorda,” said my friend Matias, a Patagonian farmer of few words. “You must see it.”

There are two things to know about Punta Gorda, a fleck of a town 20 minutes (by modern car) from Carmelo: It’s considered kilometer zero for the Río de la Plata, and like so many points on the coastline of South America, it boasts a connection to Darwin (the Beagle stopped here on Darwin’s famous voyage of the 1830s).

Standing on a hilltop, overlooking the muddy, roiling river, we could see Argentina in the distance. “It’s close,” said Astrid. But this quiet pocket of wine country, she added, “is a world away from the rest of the world, isn’t it?”

Fuente: The New York Times