|Francisco Carrau shows Tannat's characteristic broad leaves|
But in Uruguay, where it is the best grape variety, Marichal blends it with Pinot Noir, which grows alongside it. Alto de la Ballena blends it with Viognier. Pisano blends it with Syrah and Viognier.
And each of these is among the best wines at those excellent small family wineries.
As with most red grapes, Tannat's character is in the hands of the winemaker. There are potent 16% alcohol versions and racy, savory versions. There's unoaked, very oaked, moderately oaked. There's Tannat that's tannic like tarbrush and fresh like cherry juice. Even though Uruguay as a nation makes half as much wine as a single winery (Concha y Toro) in nearby Chile, the styles of single-variety Uruguayan Tannat vary like the styles of Syrah in France.
What Tannat wants to be in Uruguay is revealed by what it plays well with.
|They say when the macachines flowers bloom, the Tannat is ripe|
With Viognier to lift its aromatics, the Alto de la Ballena blend is all about freshness and liveliness. The Syrah in the Pisano blend adds savory notes to Uruguayan Tannat's characteristic current of palate-refreshing, just-ripe red plum fruit. And 30% Tannat added to Marichal's Pinot Noir doesn't overwhelm it: How many potent grapes can you say that about?
Uruguay and Tannat really is the perfect mix of terroir -- windy, humid, oceanic, cool for South America -- and grape.
In neighboring Argentina, they tell us that about Malbec. But Malbec's greatest characteristic is that it's a clean, full-bodied red wine for a good price. It doesn't have, by itself, a distinctive flavor note. The way to identify Malbec blind is to first figure out that it's a Bordeaux grape by the structure, and then eliminate the others.
It used to be tannic, but good winemakers have figured out how to deal with that. Now it consistently comes in with ripe tannins and fruit flavors and a satisfying body at alcohol levels about 13.5%. And the main thing is the freshness. Your palate won't get fatigued drinking a Uruguayan Tannat.
It bothers me that some of the companies exporting Tannat to the US define the grape differently. Here's a wine where you can look at the alcohol level and see what they're up to. Anything over about 14.2% (that's the highest fresh one in my notes) and the Tannat-ness withered on the vine. Some of the slickest companies at exporting to the US make bulky Tannats. If that's what you want, you might as well buy Argentine Malbec. Argentina's economy sucks and is getting worse; Uruguay's economy is booming and its peso is strong. There's no reason to pay a premium for a Uruguay wine unless you're tasting that premium in the glass.
When you do taste premium Uruguayan Tannat, it's a beautiful thing: intense without weight, elegant, long-lasting, memorable.