Monday, April 22, 2013

What Uruguayan Tannat tastes like

Francisco Carrau shows Tannat's characteristic broad leaves
You may think of Tannat as the tannic grape of Madiran in southern France, nearly undrinkable on release. Rare versions of Tannat in other countries tend to be full-bodied.

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
Many wineries blend it with Bordeaux varieties, particularly Merlot, and in these it brings freshness and bright red fruit.

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.

Uruguayan Tannat, in its purest form, is not a point chaser's wine, though some are doing that to it. It's a food lover's wine, a sommelier's wine, a wine lover's wine.

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.

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Robert said...

The Tannat-Viognier blend looks interesting. Where could I obtain a bottle? Really any bottle you tasted.

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: The main reason I didn't list my favorite wines here is the difficulty in obtaining them; I wanted to speak generally. Total Wine in Sacramento has some Pisano Tannat.

Unknown said...

Pisano produces a fine example of Uruguayan Tannat and it can be found in many places in the States.

The Merlot from Alto de la Ballena is my favorite Uruguayan wine. Love that stuff and a nice thing about living here is you can get the winery to home deliver and you just make a deposit to the winery's bank account after the delivery. Paula and company have done a great job with their wines over the last few years.

Unknown said...

Gabriel Pisano worked the 2003 harvest with us at Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg. Great kid (then!), and his family makes great wines.

Nick Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Scott said...

Pisano's Exte Oneko dessert wine Tannat is one of the most fantastic, interesting wines I have had in some time.

Álvaro Lorenzo said...

In the near future Alto de la Ballena wines will be Imported by Face to Face Wines: +1 (213) 746-2560
6601 Center Drive West Suite 500
Los Angeles‎ California‎ 90045

Markthewinemaker said...

I just drank a 2009 CataMayor Uruguayan Tannat that was spicy, rich and delicious! I've been to Uruguay before and enjoyed it then. On some deep level, I do think Tannat is good medicine; full of anti oxidants and revastriol. Blake is right in discovering this hidden treasure in South America

gabriela lopetegui said...

Hola ! I'm reading this from Montevideo (Uruguay) while tasting a Tannat "ViÑala" 2014 from the Irurtia Family...I'm not an expert in wines, I must admit I choosed this one because the price was affordable ( Uruguay es muy caro).
Best regards from Uruguay, Salud ! :-)