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