When I think of wine from South America, I think of Malbec from Argentina. Argentinian Malbec is quite ubiquitous, but what you may never have heard of is Tannat from Uruguay. Uruguay is a small country in South America (about the size of Washington state) that borders Argentina to the North/East. Like Argentina, Uruguay is a huge beef and wine consuming country. Uruguayos (in Spanish what we call one from Uruguay) on average consume 124 lbs of beef annually. They are also the biggest consumer of wine outside of Europe. For this single reason, wines from Uruguay are tough to find in the export market. There is just not enough to go around. Uruguay struggles because they want to world to see what they do in regards to wine, BUT they want to (and can!) drink just about all of it domestically! Only about 10-15% of production is exported. This push and pull is the “rub” of Uruguayan wine.
About 90% of Uruguayos are of European descent (that would explain the copious wine consumption). The domestic wine industry is quite fragmented with 90% of wineries being family-owned and boutique in size. There is an old tradition of hand harvesting in Uruguay, which is common because of the low labor costs.
Tannat vines were first planted in Uruguay by the Basque and Italian settlers in the 1870s. Pascal Harriague first introduced the grape to Uruguay and to this day “Harriague” is still used for varietal labeling on wines meant for domestic consumption. The rest of the world knows it as Tannat.
Tannat is a thick skin, hardy red grape that is good for a challenging (wet) climate. The grapes has high tannins and moderate/strong acid plus good color. The grape needs a long growing season and produces generally low yields. Classic Tannat notes include black fruit, spice, cocoa, tobacco, and licorice. Overall savory notes. Compared to Tannat from Madiran in SW France, the Uruguay expression has much more approachable tannins. The wines are generally dry, fruity, and meant to be drunk young. Essentially, they are two very different wines.
Can Uruguay compete in the international wine market? They are surely trying to make a case! Most exports make their way to Brazil. Also there are joint ventures with wineries in other countries such as Argentina Brazil, and the US. Lastly, flying winemakers such as Michel Rolland and Paul Hobbs have come to make wine here and the younger generation of domestic winemakers (i.e. Gabriel Pizano) are gaining overseas experience to reinvest in Uruguay.
At the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla, Washington this year, I attended a Uruguay wine seminar taught by Amanda Barnes of Around the World in 80 Harvests. Below are the wines she selected for this tasting presentation.
Winemaker Eduardo Boido works with 90% stainless steel and 10% barrel for fermentation. The wine spends 3 months on the lees. This is a bold, assertive very New World wine with lots of salinity and stone fruit.
Winemaker Gustavo Pisano gives us the purest expression of the Tannat grape with this wine. And my personal favorite of the bunch. A beautiful medium ruby color. This wine is soft, silky, and sexy with a combination of red and black fruit plus sweet baking spices, pepper, and smokiness. They make a sparkling Tannat that I’d LOVE to try.
Winemaker Juan Andres Marichal gives us a lovely oak aged Tannat (70% is aged in oak for 12 months). I can definitely sense the oak on the nose, but it integrates as you move to the palate. Marichal also makes a Pinot Noir, which could be an interesting foil to this wine.
Artesana is the first producer to make a Zinfandel in Uruguay. Winemakers Analia Lazaneo and Valentina Gatti give this wine a 20-day cool maceration in stainless steel. It is aged 12 months in both American and French oak. This is an interesting blend. Would be impossible to pinpoint the varieties in a blind tasting. I vote this one most interesting of the bunch.
Another interesting blend to explore. First off: Marselan? That is a new one for me! It is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache and is found mostly in the Rhone and Languedoc regions of France. The wine has a medium body, fine tannins, and an intense color. I get mostly black fruit, particularly cassis. This is a really nice wine that can stand alone and does not require food. A solid wine that would make both the novice drinker and the wine geek happy.
Now we move into the more “premium” selections tasted. And this is no surprise, as this wine is made by the legendary Paul Hobbs. 50% of the wine is aged in barrel for 9 months. This is the most polished wine we tasted. No rusticity at all. I get fruit plus herbs and earth.
This is the largest winery investment in South America ($100 million) whose owner is a wealthy Argentine man. This wine sees fermentation in cement tanks and spends 12-18 months on the lees in French barrels/casks. Winemakers Alberto Antonini and Germán Bruzzone love the energy that the granitic soils give this wine. This one is my favorite of the two premium wines tasted.
Also, take a look at Amanda Barnes' blog post HERE regarding this wonderful event!