Are you up to a challenge? This is what I propose you to do, next weekend, leave your cabernet, merlot and shiraz that you like so much, and try a different red, like a wine made from Tannat.
Tannat is often considered an underdog red grape, mostly because very few people know about it, yet it has plenty to say. Tannat makes some of the most powerful wines in the world, wines that are rich, flavorful, and tannic. Wines that thrive at all price ranges, with some very affordable samples starting at only $18, but also super premium quality at $30 and above.
Originally from Southwest France, Tannat is a main component of AOC Madiran wines. By law, traditional Madiran is usually a blend made from 60 to 80 % Tannat, complemented by either Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Fer. Stylistically, Madiran wines were once known for being very powerful and rustic, requiring years in the cellar to soften their grippy tannins, but nowadays and thanks to destemming and to micro-oxygenation, Madiran wines are approachable sooner.
Besides Madiran, Tannat does very well in another place in the world, and this is where I want you to focus today, in a tiny South American country called Uruguay. Uruguay, located to the south of Brazil and to the east of Argentina, has over 180 wine producers, and over 6,000 hectares of vineyards, 27% of which are dedicated exclusively to Tannat.
Without a doubt, Tannat is the varietal flagship of all Uruguayan reds. Tannat is also known in Uruguay as Harriague, to honor Pascal Harriague, the Basque country pioneer, who was the first person to import cuttings of Tannat to Uruguay, in the late 1800s. Uruguayan vineyards, like those in Madiran, enjoy a similar mild maritime climate; though technically located at the same latitude as Mendoza in Argentina or Maipo in Chile, Uruguay has a completely different terroir. For starters, there is very little altitude in their vineyards, with most of them planted on rather flat valleys, with some small hills that can reach up to 500 meters above sea level on their highest peaks. There are 6 distinctive wine regions in Uruguay but the two most important are located near the city of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.
Canelones is considered the very heart of all Uruguayan viticulture, producing almost 73% of all Uruguayan wine, followed by nearby Maldonado that produces about 7%. These side to side areas are very much influenced by the Atlantic ocean and by two opposite currents: the Malvinas current that comes from the South and the Brazilian current that comes from the north, which bring plenty of rain (about 1000 mm a year). Uruguay’s climate is warmer and very humid and very different from the almost desertic and dry Mendoza or cooler Casablanca valley in Chile. This maritime influence will leave a mark on the final wines that are more fruit-forward with balanced acidity and less aggressive tannins than their European counterparts. Like in Madiran, Uruguayan Tannat is also planted on soils rich in clay and granite with some patches of calcium carbonate compounds from sea shells. Most Uruguayan Tannat is sold as a single varietal, but it can be blended with other grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Merlot, I was surprised to receive a sample with some Viognier in the blend too!
Stylistically, Tannat yields a natural powerbomb wine: with a big body, plenty of acidity and structure from tannins, and these tannins you will surely feel on your palate, even when the wines have not been aged in oak at all. Tannat wines are almost black in color and display ripe black fruit flavors of black cherries, blackberries, black plums, licorice and tobacco. With aging they will show notes of leather, smoke, espresso, chocolate and cigar box. Their muscular structure will allow them to develop in your cellars for 10 years or more.
Before I dive into the wines I tasted recently, allow me to thank Global Vineyard, the Inavi (Uruguay wine institute) and Creative Palate, for inviting me to a very informative Zoom seminar about Uruguay wines and for sending these wonderful samples.
Gimenez Mendez Alta Reserva Tannat 2020, $18
Made from 100 % Tannat, it shows delicious blackberry and plum notes complemented by milk chocolate hints. With very smooth tannins and lively acidity, this wine was aged for 9 months in a blend of both American and French oak.
Marichal Reserve Collection 2019, $20
Made from 100% Tannat grapes, from 25 year old vineyards. This seductive red reveals layers of jammy black cherry, prune and leather notes. Velvety, round and ample with a touch of spice from spending 12 months in oak.
Montes Toscanini Gran Tannat Premium 2019, $59
Super classic 100 % Tannat that yields rich blackberry marmalade, spicy clove and roasted coffee notes. A nice integration of ripe fruit, acidity and tannins. Very elegant and structured, it was aged for 18 months in oak. Wonderful now, but has plenty of cellar potential and will only get better with time.
Alto de La Ballena Tannat, 2018, $24
A singular blend of 85% Tannat and 15% Viognier (something that is done only in Uruguay). It delivers charming red fruits: raspberry and cherry with powdery cocoa and chalky tannins from aging in American oak for 9 months. Very yummy!
Pisano RPF Tannat 2018, $24
This 100% Tannat features savory plum, cassis and bitter chocolate notes that open up to a delicious and very powerful red. Robust with very balanced tannins and a beautiful and concentrated finish. It smells and tastes more expensive than its price tag!
Massive and spectacular! This hearty red is made from 100% Tannat grapes from 40 year old vineyards. Grand Reserve “A” features cocoa, blackberry and prune notes with espresso hints. Very expressive and extracted, a Wow me Tannat for sure!
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