The grape that is, rightly or wrongly, always associated with Uruguay is Tannat, originally from the Madiran region of southwestern France, near the Pyrenees, and so known to the Basques who came to Uruguay in the nineteenth century and played a major role in starting its wine-making industry.
In 1870 one of them, Pascual Harriague, planted Tannat vines near Salto in the northwest of the country, and in 1876 Francisco Vidiela planted them in Colón, now in Montevideo’s northern suburbs. As early as 1877 Tannat (then called Harriague) was known as the ‘Uruguayan grape’, and in the late twentieth century it became associated with the country’s resurgent wine industry.
Wine-makers have used Tannat as Uruguay’s calling card even more than Chilean winemakers have used Carmene*re, and most visitors to Uruguay will want to try it. In fact it is quite hard to avoid as it’s used a lot, being very productive, ripening late and coping well with frost. It produces large tight bunches of smallish grapes which are easy to pick, an important consideration as harvesting in Uruguay is almost always done by hand (unusually, its leaves begin with three lobes and then develop two more). It produces a full-bodied deep red-black wine that’s fruity and a bit smokey.
However there is a problem. Tannat is known for its very high tannin levels (the name is no coincidence), due to the grape’s thick skin, and on its own Tannat can be just too much for many people. Historically this has happened when the summer has been wet or the grapes have not ripened fully, or when it’s been aged for too long in poor barrels; good management is vital. In France it has always been used mainly as a blending grape, and the rules of the Madiran appellation require Tannat to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer. It is also blended with Manseng and Courbu Noir, but blending Tannat with Merlot has been particularly successful in giving softer fruitier wines. Tannat’s high acidity allows it to be aged in oak barrels for up to twenty months to soften the tannins and bring out its flavour, and it benefits further from bottle aging (up to 6 years) and decanting before serving. French rosés made with Tannat are allowed to macerate or steep for only a short time to stop the wine becoming too tannic. The technique of micro-oxygenation was introduced in Madiran in 1990, with oxygen being bubbled through fermenting Tannat, to soften the wine’s tannins.
In Uruguay Tannat has been bred to be less acidic and tannic but with higher alcohol levels and more complex fruit tones. Some winemakers blend these modern clones with grapes from the ‘old vines’ descended from the original French cuttings; both types of Tannat are often blended with fruitier grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Some of these blends work immensely well; in addition fortified and distilled Tannats (like port or brandy) are now appearing and seem to be very successful. With luck, the days of people having to add ice or soda to their Tannat to make it drinkable are over. Indeed, the Financial Times’s wine writer Jancis Robinson chose a 2006 Uruguayan Tannat as one of her thirty choices for Christmas, perhaps because it goes so well with chocolate.
Tannat has now spread from Uruguay to Argentina, Chile, California and Australia; in the last five years most vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina, have taken to adding 5-10% Tannat to their Malbec, an amount that doesn’t have to be shown on the label. In California it’s used in Meritage (or Bordeaux-style) wines and also blended with Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Syrah grapes.
Around 25% of Uruguay’s vineyard area is now planted with Tannat, mostly in Canelones and elsewhere in the south; however in recent years it’s been found that it actually does even better in the north, and new vineyards are being established near Salto (where Tannat was first planted in Uruguay) and Rivera.
One of Uruguay’s most impressive start-up wineries is Alto de la Ballena (Ruta 12 km 16.4 Maldonado; tel: (094) 24 0365; www.altodelaballena.com), which certainly indicates that Maldonado has a promising future as a wine-making region.
Álvaro Lorenzo and his wife Paula Pivel were high-flying MBAs (he was also a member of Congress from 2004 to 2010) but decided to follow their passion and create a boutique winery. Their research identified southeastern Uruguay as ideal for dry wines, with sea breezes and temperatures of 30° C when it’s 35° or 40° in Canelones and the interior. They planted 8 hectares from 2001 on and began making wine using equipment at other wineries; since 2008 they’ve had their own winery and the results are even better than before. They’re producing 30,000 bottles a year, and aim to increase that to 50,000, exporting 20,000 soon.
Almost half the area is planted with Merlot, with Tannat, Cabernet Franc, and half a hectare each of Syrah and Viognier; they make a unique and very successful Reserva of Tannat (85-90%) and Viognier, and also blend up to 20% Viognier with their Syrah. The spicey, plummy Merlot Reserva is excellent too, spending a year in French oak. The entry level line includes a clean, well balanced Viognier, a Merlot-Cabernet Franc-Tannat blend (with half the Merlot aged in French oak, but still a young wine overall with lots of tannin) and a rosé (60% Cabernet Franc, 40% Tannat, so like a light red wine); they may also add a Cabernet Franc.
Turning south off Ruta 9 at km 127 onto Ruta 12 (from Minas to Maldonado), the vineyard is 16km from the sea, with iron-rich soil of oxidated grey granite with schist and quartz; some of their land is too rocky to plant, but it’s a haven for wildlife (with lots of field flickers) and has great views out across the Laguna del Sauce. Tastings are on a hilltop deck (although a tasting room and restaurant are under consideration), where ninety-minute visits tend to stretch to two hours or more as people relax in hammocks to enjoy the breeze and the siesta.
There’s a fairly lengthy approach along a dirt track to the vineyards and then the hilltop tasting room with stunning. Small groups come mainly from Punta del Este’s hotels, and can buy wines for US$9 a bottle, or US$19 for the reservas (which sell for US$40-50 in Punta’s restaurants); there’s an extra charge for a selection of wonderful cheeses from Nonno Antonio’s.
Bradt Travel Guides, Uruguay Ed. 2010