Uruguayan Wine: The Uru Guru Says ‘Tannat’

Recently, I climbed to the top of Uruguay’s highest peak (50 ft.) to consult with the Uruguayan Wine  Guru.  Here’s a snippet of what I learned:

For some reason, whether you’re a wine person, a map geek or a general global busy-body, Uruguay doesn’t seem to comman much notice.

No, it’s not the place where dictators eat people alive; that’s Uganda.  No, it isn’t the birthplace of the strangely-refreshing herbal whistle-wetter called tereré; that’s Paraguay.  And the Uruk-Hai?  They’re an advanced breed of Orc.

Desperately seeking Glinda

What is it then…?

Uruguay is a Matt Roloff-sized  Republic wedged between Brazil and Argentina almost as an afterthought, like a toddler that got jammed between two really fat people in the middle row of a jumbo jet.

Uruguay claims to be the fourth largest South American wine producer, though in a continent that only has twelve countries, why even bring it up?  It also boasts about having the 47th highest quality of life in the world.  You go, Uruguay!—however, just between us friends?  When my eleven-year-old came in 47th place at her gymnastics meet, we didn’t make a big whoop over it.

Better that you Urugundians should concentrate on business, primarily tannat, a grape so obscure that not only have most non-oenophiles never heard of it, they’ve never even heard of the AOC where it originates—Madiran, in the southwest of France.  Yet somehow, the Mini Me of the cuchillas has managed to make this grape—typically so high in tannin that it’s named after it—a personal rehabilitation project, much like Argentina did with malbec.  In Uruguay, tannat has reached new heights of splendor, which of course is a bit like saying that my daughter has improved her overall gymnastics standing to thirty-fifth place.

Still, Uruguayan tannat has plenty to recommend it:  it’s unique, scrumptious, inexpensive, higher in the antioxidant procyanidin than any other wine in the world, and plentiful—representing a third of all wine produced in Uruguay.

In  that case, why don’t we drink more of it…?

Well, even though there are three hundred wineries a day-trip away from Montevideo, one reason that we don’t see more of their tannat on our shelves is that those greedy, thirstyUruguayos don’t let much of it go; less than 5%, in fact.

Why? They need it, that’s why.  Annual per capita Uruguayan wine consumption is nearly nine gallons, three times that of your average American pick-up-a-sixer-of-Bud-on-the-way-home.

Forget the standard-of-living stats, Uruguay—there’s a figure to be proud of, especially in a country with less people than Minneapolis.

Tannat in the hand is worth two in the bush

The Uru guru says, you work with what you’ve got…

Uruguay’s success with tannat is due to the usual combination of terroir savoir-faire as well as the fact that for the most part, that’s what they started with—a Basque called Pascual Harriague brought vines from France in 1870 and found that it thrived in the flat, humid landscape. Uruguayan geography and soil is said to resemble that of Bordeaux’s fabled Entre Deux Mers—the right bank specifically, which is possible since they’re both the size of a postage stamp.

French tannat can be described as heavy, brooding, dark and ferocious; Uruguayan tannat is much less mouth-parching than its European doppelganger; it tends to be lighter bodied, more acidic and flecked with nuances of wood smoke, black pepper and spice.  Ranging in styles from Port-like to Beaujolais-like—as if you could find two more disparate wines—Uruguayan tannat, from top producers like Bodega de Lucca, focus on the chocolaty qualities of the grape, and when combined with a natural dustiness, the wines have an almost Nestlé’s Quick richness about them, unlike anything from Madiran.

Speaking of Madiran, avoid the confusion factor…

Near Madiran, there’s a Spanish wine region in the called Irouléguy that’s also producing bang-up tannats in the Uruguayan style—fruiter, more restrained with the chewing-on-a-popsicle-stick tannins—in fact, tannat often winds up as Irouléguyan rosé.

And if the similar name and identical mission-statement doesn’t sufficiently spin your head, consider that Irouléguyans also make a popular white from an equally obscure grape called petit manseng—which is likewise sown extensively in Uruguay, where it even pre-dates tannat.

And that’s enough to leave even the Uru guru saying, ‘¿¿Mande, mande come qué fue??’—castellano rioplatense for “WTF??”

Tasting notes:

Bodega de Lucca Tannat Reserva, 2009, around $14:  Director and winemaker Reinaldo de Lucca (known universally as as ‘El Tano’) may be the genuine Uru guru.  One of the country’s true wine luminaries, partly responsible for the Uruguayan tannat renaissance of the 1980’s, he prides himself on ecologically sound production, artisan methods and pure, expressive selections.  The ’09 Tannat Reserva is supple and voluptuous, offering sweet smells of blackberry and toast, flavors of cocoa, vanilla and cassis.  Tannins are indeed elevated, but perhaps from the barrel-ferment.  A beautiful accompaniment to grilled or barbecued beef, porterhouse or burger.  


To buy Uruguayan wine online:


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