Uruguay: the new word in wine

The country is claiming its own grape
February 18, 2016

Is there such a thing as a national grape? There are certainly international grapes like Chardonnay or Merlot, which are grown all over the globe. There are grapes like Furmint in Hungary, Pinotage in South Africa and Glena from which we get Italy’s Prosecco, that are all but exclusive to those countries. But then there are the adopted grapes, raised in another country where they behave quite differently, and where local wine growers will say they have found their true home.

Perhaps the first example was the Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand. Transported from the Loire valley, the grape found greater ripeness and took on tropical flavours alongside its characteristic primary aromas. Soon, drinkers were ordering New Zealand Sauv-ignon Blanc, looking for the tropical flavours. Some concerned French growers started aiming for the richer style. Others kept their nerve, and eventually some New Zealand growers started producing more precisely delineated French-style wines.

The other example of successful adoption is the Malbec grape in Argentina. Although originally from France, Malbec, or Cot as it was known, found its best expression on the sides of the Andes in the range running from Luján de Cuyo, just outside the city of Mendoza, all the way to the Uco Valley.

There are other expressions of Malbec in Argentina, such as those produced in Patagonia. These are very different wines: more angular and lacking the fullness of Malbecs from Mendoza, but gaining some bite through the tart blackberry fruit of grapes grown in this cooler climate.

Nowadays, in wine-drinking circles, Malbec is synonymous with Argentina, but neighbouring Uruguay is now claiming its own grape: Tannat. Originally grown in the south-west of France for the wines of Madiran, it produced robust tannins which needed time to soften. When it is planted at a sunny latitude of 35 degrees south of the equator and at altitude, it produces lighter, fresher wines with good acidity. The red and black fruits are still there, aromas of raspberry and blackberry and just enough tannin to give structure to the succulent flesh.

Already, in Uruguay, there are different styles of winemaking and different quality levels. Some aim for an international style, speaking little of place; while others aim for more distinctive wines that show all that Tannat grown in the region can be. Among these is Vinos Pisano whose 2011 Tannat Reserve shows plush elegance and complexity, lifted by tangy acidity. Pisano wines are exported: their 2014 Cisplantino Tannat caught thebuyer’s eye at Marks & Spencer.

Many growers are now experimenting with blends, pairing Tannat with Syrah or Merlot. By far the most interesting experiment is the addition of 15 per cent Viognier to the 2011 Tannat-Viognier from Alto de la Ballena. This contributes a silky texture and tangy peach finish. The idea comes from Old World tradition. For in the northern Rhône, winemakers frequently add small percentages of Viognier to the Syrah in their Côte Rôties. The best Uruguayan wine growers have used it to good effect. And the very best will have a 100 per cent Viognier too. But so far, that grape still belongs to the northern Rhône.