Tannat: The Rising Star of Uruguay
When I think wine, I go to Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile but Uruguay?? Yes……you read that right……….Uruguay. Turns out that Uruguay has been the beneficiary of a grape transplant, Tannat, from France to this South American country. If this story rings a bell, it’s because it follows the same path as the French Cahors Malbec grape that was transplanted to Mendoza, Argentina in the 1800’s. Tannat was transported from Southern France to Uruguay by the French Basques and planted in the 1870’s. Turns out the landing spot was ideal for the grape.
Uruguay, about the size of Austria or one and half times the size of Alabama, is located south of Brazil and north and east of Argentina and in an east-west band that includes the outstanding Medoza region of Argentina (Malbec), some of the top wine growing regions of Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Located on the Atlantic coast between 30 and 35 degrees south latitude, the country enjoys a sub-tropical, somewhat temperate climate with an average annual temperature of 65F and approximately 40 inches of rainfall. Summer days tend to be quite mild to occasionally hot and nights cool, reflecting the proximity to the Atlantic. This temperature range is reflected in the good acidity found in Tannat wines. Coastal locations tend to be more moderate in seasonal temperatures than inland ranging from 80’s by day and 60’s by night during the summer (January in the southern hemisphere) to high 50’s during the day and 40’s at night in the winter (July).
Uruguayan soils, interestingly enough, resemble those of the Entre Deux Mers region of Bordeaux with clay rich topsoil and limestone subsoils. The climate is, however, warmer than Bordeaux but with the Atlantic offering a maritime influence.
The country is divided into nine regions according to the characteristics of the grapes cultivated. About 90 percent of the land planted with grapes is located in the southern region, 5 percent in the southwestern region, and the rest, in the central and southeastern regions.
With over 8500 hectares (21,000 acres) of vineyards, Uruguay is now the fourth largest wine growing region in South America behind Chile, Argentina and Brazil with around 35% dedicated to red, 22% rose, 11% white and the rest mixed. According to Uruguayan wine publications, the county currently exports 17% of its volume which is expected to increase to 20-25% by the end of 2012.
While grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat Ottonel and Muscatel are planted, it’s the tannic and deep grape Tannat that has become the star.
Tannat wines originated in the area of southwest France known as the Madiran, which lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. They’ve been made in this region since the 17th century, when French kings accepted Madiran wines as payment for taxes, and continue to be made today in the tiny appellation of Irouléguy, along the Spanish border. Despite continued production in France, more Tannat wine is made in Uruguay than in it’s original home land. Tannats are also produced in Argentina, Australia and Italy.
The grape is typically a late ripening varietal, very suitable for warm climates with cool nights. Its aromatic profile displays lots of raspberry and black currant notes when young and notes of coffee, spice, cocoa and vanilla when aged. It’s a wine that’s very well structured, robust with hefty tannins and very good acidity, all important ingredients for aging. It’s not uncommon for Tannat to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in an effort to soften the tanninc structure.
In order to “tame” the tannins earlier in life, two contrasting winemaking approaches have been utilized. One, is to use new oak barrels which both soften and sweeten the tannins (oak barrels also contain their own style of tannins, as well). The second is to infuse small amounts of oxygen into the wine (micro-oxygenation).
While Tannat is clearly the number one grape in Uruguay, it is its inordinately high level of phenolics (found in both the skins and seeds of the grape) that has put the wine on the global map. The fact that the grape contains five pips (seeds) while many others contain only three, may, in part, be responsible for high level of phenols. As many of these compounds, including resveratrol, are an important natural source of antioxidants, the grape and its wine has the medical industry questioning whether Tannat offers more health benefits than its competitors. That answer is still out for judgement. However, it is intriguing that there are reports from the Gers region (that encompasses the AOC Madiran) of males living an extraordinarily long, long life. Coincidence?