Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Wines Of Uruguay (Part 2)

If you examine the location and climate of Uruguay, there is little question why it is an excellent location for vineyards. It is located on the same latitude as South Africa and Adelaide, Australia. The Uruguayan climate is very conducive, with a predominantly maritime climate and about 1000mm of rain annually. The high amount of rainfall is possibly the greatest climatic obstacle to the vineyards, but Uruguayans have learned how to adapt.

Their vineyards are planted with about 72% red varietals with Tannat, at 43%, leading the group. In a land where beef is king, it is easy to see why red wines are so popular, especially when most of their production is consumed within the country. The other main red grapes include 21% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 7% Cabernet Franc, You'll also find grapes such as Arinarnoa, Marselan, Tempranillo, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, and Nebbiolo. A number of these grapes show the clear influence of Italian, Basque and Spanish immigrants.

As for white grapes, plantings include 27% Chardonnay, 22% Sauvignon Blanc, 8% Sémillon, and 5% Viognier. In addition, you'll find minor plantings of grapes like Albarino, Petit Manseng, and Roussanne. These vines seem to show more of a French influence though the addition of Albarino clearly comes from Spanish immigrants. Maybe Uruguay should explore more Spanish and Italian white grapes. There are at least several wineries with experimental vineyards, researching the viability of numerous different grapes.

The undisputed signature grape of Uruguay is Tannat, which is planted on about 7200 acres, and the country has more Tannat vineyards than the rest of the world combined. France probably has the second highest amount of Tannat vineyards though the grape has spread across the world, from Australia to South Africa. In the U.S., Tannat can be found in California, Maryland and Virginia, and in South America, Tannat is also found in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil.

It is believed that Tannat may have originated around the 13th century, planted in the town of Madiran, though the first written mention of this grape wasn't until the 18th century. It's original home is likely in the Western Pyrenees of France, and now is primarily grown in France in the Madiran AOC. Sometime before 1870, it is believed that Basque immigrants brought Tannat vines to South America and they ended up in Uruguay. The vines adapted well to the climate of Uruguay and it quickly became considered the national grape. This reminds me of Malbec, how that French grape thrived in Argentina and became their signature grape. Tannat is not as well known as Malbec to the average wine consumer, but that could change in the future,

Tannat is easy to grow, ripens late, and has a thick skin which provides some resistance to powdery mildew and botrytis. It produces robust wines with strong tannins, dark fruit flavors and spicy notes. It is also considered to be one of the healthiest red wines as it contains 3 to 4 times more antioxidants than other red grapes, and also has a high concentration of resveratrol. As Malbec wines in Argentina are very different from Malbec wines from Cahors, France, so are Tannat wines in Uruguay very different from Tannat wines from Madiran. Tannat wines in Uruguay tend to be softer and less tannic than that in France. The Tannat grape has transformed over the last 140+ years in Uruguay, and can create compelling wines.

In Uruguay, Tannat wine is not monolithic, but actually is produced in a number of different styles, from soft & fruity to big & bold. You'll find inexpensive, easy-drinking wines as well as high-end, terroir driven Tannats. Though there are plenty of single varietal Tannat wines, you will also find it blended with a number of other grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Syrah and Viognier. These blends often help to tame the strong tannins of the Tannat, making the wines more approachable.

Though grapes are grown throughout much of Uruguay, they are concentrated in four regions: Canelones, Montevideo, Colonia, and Maldonado. Canelones, which has 60% of Uruguay's vineyards, is known for its clay-rich calcareous soils, while Montevideo is more known for the clay in its soil. Colonia possesses stony alluvial soils while Maldonado has soils rich with decomposed volcanic rock. What is most important to understand is that there is a diversity of soils, over 95 different types, within Uruguay, providing numerous different terroirs.

It is said that the wines of Uruguay combine European tradition with New World technology, and are usually well balanced. As most of the wineries are small, with few large companies, they are mostly artisan operations. There are also a fair number of female wine makers in the country. As exports continue to increase, you'll be hearing more and more about Uruguayan wines, and based on my recent tasting of their wines, you'll want to drink these wines.

To Be Continued...


Ralph Haverkate said...

Great article about Tannat in Uruguay!

Leslie Fellows said...

Loved Part II, excellent exposé on Tannat in all its glory! Of interest, tannat has five seeds whereas other fine wine grapes have only two or three, so this adds to its high tannin levels. In Uruguay, we soften these tannins with the use of cold soaks and long, cool maceration regimes.
Leslie Fellows, Artesana Winery