As I discussed in my previous post on Tannat, this peculiar and until recently little recognized grape made its way to Uruguay when Basque immigrants arrived in the late 1800s. For most of the last two centuries Tannat wasn’t making many headlines, but now with Uruguayan wineries like Garzon and Pisano catching the attention of importers and wine writers, a shift has begun.
This small and eccentric country has been working hard on creating a name for Tannat outside of France. The primary growing region in Uruguay is called Canelones. It is located quite close to the coast, and its proximity to Montevideo, the biggest market for Uruguayan wines, is undoubtedly a big factor as to why this region exists. Canelones accounts for more than half of the production of wine in Uruguay, and the bulk of the vineyards are planted to Tannat. The climate is largely affected by its proximity to the Atlantic ocean, and can often be more similar to Bordeaux than the other more mediterranean-like South American wine regions.
Uruguay, unlike its neighbors, receives quite a bit of rain. In fact most of the vineyards in Uruguay do not need any type of irrigation as they are located relatively close to the coast, where precipitation can reach over 1000mm per year (40 inches). Tannat has survived here because it is an extremely resistant vine, tolerating both high and low levels of rain, as well as standing up to mildew and fungus. Tannat is an extremely thick-skinned varietal, which keeps its berries well protected from these elements. The region has rather heavy soils with poor drainage, and particularly wet years can greatly affect the quality of the entire region. Winemakers have been known to use plastic sheeting to protect vines from excessive rains.
As is typical for many South American countries, Uruguay produced mostly low quality wines for local consumption until the 90s when Chilean and Argentine wines began to flood the market. At this point Uruguayan winemakers realized that they had to either compete or be forced out of business, so they modernized, investing in quality equipment and bringing in foreign consultants (aka flying winemakers) to help them increase quality. Winemakers like Paul Hobbs, one of the most famous of these flying winemakers, has done a lot to help them identify regions outside of Canelones that may be more suitable for this unique grape varietal.
The biggest challenge for Tannat is its tannin structure. It makes it one of the healthiest wines in the world, but also one of the most astringent. Winemakers doing a lot of experimentation these days, using different types of equipment, fermentation methods, and even experimenting with canopy management and other vineyard practices in order to find the right expression for Uruguayan Tannat. Some have even tried using Carbonic Maceration, a technique known for making the juicy, fruity, thirst quenching style of Beaujolais Nouveau, to make a more refreshing Tannat. There are a lot of creative winemakers and dedicated families working on creating the new generation of Tannat. As wine writer Amanda Barnes notes in her blog Around the World in 80 Harvests: "Tannat is one hell of a variety to tame. Which is what makes Uruguay’s attempts over the last two decades to master the variety so admirable, and makes the results all the more impressive."
For a great dive into Uruguayan Tannat, read more from Amanda Barnes: