By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
You are probably familiar with the malbecs and torrontes of Argentina and the sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons of Chile. But did you ever try wines made from tannat grapes grown in Uruguay?
Most people are lucky to know how to spell the country not to mention where to find it on a map. But the people of this South American country – where cows outnumber people 4 to 1 – have been making wine since the mid-1800s.
Uruguay’s vineyard planting is relatively small. Its total 14,450 acres of vines put it close to that of Alexander Valley in California. Its maritime influence – the only South American terroir whose climate is affected by the Atlantic Ocean – is ideal. White wines are grown closer to the Atlantic while red wines are grown farther away where grapes like tannat need a lot of warmth to fully ripen. There is no problem with water — rainfall averages 39 inches close to the ocean and as much as 63 inches in some interior regions.
We recently shared several Uruguay wines on a Zoom program with several winemakers and wine writer Joaquin Hidalgo.
Tannat – also grown in southwest France – is the most prominent grape variety here. Introduced to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 19th century, it is often blended with other grapes. Tannat grown in Uruguay is blessed by a maritime climate and clay soil, elements Hidalgo believes give it a more refreshing leaner style than that grown in Argentina.
Nonetheless, some of these wines are not for the faint of heart because tannat’s thick skins produce a lot of deep color but also gritty tannin. Those that have riper fruit show how some winemakers are trying to moderate the harshness of the grape.
We found they benefit from aeration and they most probably will evolve with some cellar time – a decade at least.
To improve quality, Uruguay has created a VCP label that identifies the fine wines as Wine of Preferential Quality. Although they may not have appellations as we understand them, six distinct winemaking regions have been identified: Northern Shore, Southern Shore, Metropolitan, Oceanic, Center and North. Metropolitan accounts for two-thirds of the country’s wineries.
Here are few examples we recently tasted:
Monte Vide Eu Bouza 2019 ($67). This was our favorite of the tasting. The merlot and tempranillo in this blend tame the firm tannins from the tannat grapes. These tannins are round and the texture is supple with rich red fruit and spice character.
Pisano RPF Tannat Reserva 2016 ($24). The family’s personal reserve sometimes released to the public has ripe raspberry and blackberry character, spice, chocolate and forest floor notes with big tannins. Concentrated with pronounced alcohol.
Alto de la Ballena Tannat-Viognier Reserva 2018 ($24). The 15 percent viognier in this big wine provides lift to the aromatics with red cherry, spice and floral elements. The flavor profile is focused on black cherries and some herbs. The chewy tannins give the wine good body.
Gimenez Mendez Alta Reserva Tannat 2020 ($18). Black cherry and plum flavors with hints of rosemary and vanilla abound in this firm tannat. Great value.
Italy is making some of the best values in wine. Consumers would be wise to seek them out.
We recently tasted three wines from Zenato that we highly recommend. They are full of flavor, easy to drink and versatile with food.
Nadia Zenato is not only involved in making wine in a male-dominated business, but he has a passion for making jewelry, an interest she had since childhood. Her collection is inspired by the world of wine. She also launched Zenato Academy for young artists pursuing photography.
The 2019 Zenato Alanera Rosso Veronese ($18) is an expressive blend of corvina, rondinella, corvinone, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Its delicious richness comes from a variation of the appassimento method common to this region. Despite the reasonable price, this wine is concentrated with cherry, coffee and tobacco aromas. The tannins are smooth and refined.
The 2018 Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore ($32) is a step up in complexity. Corvina, oseleta and rondinella grapes work harmoniously to produce a velvety wine with dark fruit character and a hint of spice. The wine is aged in French oak for 18 months and held in bottle for another six months prior to release.
The 2019 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore ($19) is made from the same grape varieties as the Ripassa, but it is simpler – yet equally delicious. It does not have the oak aging as the Ripassa but it is fresh with ripe black cherry flavors and a hint of spice and chocolate. The Superiore designation requires that the grapes are harvested at a slightly higher sugar level. Although that generally means more alcohol, it is not obvious in this supple wine.
Ventisquero Ventice 2019 ($40). This tasty red blend from Chile shows off ripe blackberry and spice notes with hints of mineral and black pepper. Beautifully textured and round.
Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir 2021 ($27). This producer makes many pinot noirs, but this assembly of grapes from Monterey County, Sonoma County and Santa Barbera should not be “overlooked.” It has broad red berry aromas with a hint of vanilla and spice. Flavors include ripe strawberry and cherry flavors with herbal notes.
Domane Wachau Riesling 2021 ($19). We like riesling with fish because it complements delicate fish like Dover sole or sea bass. This one has stone fruit and ripe pear notes.
Meeker Winemakers’ Handprint Merlot 2018 ($52). People collect this wine for the bottle alone – each one has a unique, painted handprint of the winemaker – but what’s inside is just as attractive. Blended with a bit of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah, it has an old-world feel. Bright red berry flavors with herbal aromas and firm structure. Charlie and Molly Meeker are celebrating the Dry Creek winery’s 40th anniversary this year.