A lot of Californians probably aren't even sure where Uruguay is (southern South America, between Brazil and Argentina), let alone that it's the continent's fourth-largest wine producer. Not many of the country's wines make it here, and the signature grape variety is the relatively unknown tannat.
"There's not much traction in the U.S. market," says international winemaking consultant Paul Hobbs, in something of an understatement.
That may be starting to change. Some of that country's best wineries are signing up with importers and promoting their wines through a trade organization, Wines of Uruguay. Foreign investment is funding exciting new wine projects, and some wineries are hiring high-profile consultants, such as Hobbs, who is working for Juanico, Michel Rolland (Narbona) and Alberto Antonini (Garzon).
Although Uruguayan wineries are producing a variety of wines, from albarino to zinfandel, the story has to start with tannat. Tannat is "90 percent of the image of Uruguay," says Marta Mendez of Gimenez Mendez.
Tannat, a red grape from southwestern France, was introduced to Uruguay in the 1870s. In France, notably the Madiran region, tannat produces a tough, tannic red. The better Uruguayan wineries have largely managed to tame those tannins. The wines range from fruity and easy to drink to fuller-bodied, more structured styles with ample spicy, dark fruit. The grape is often blended with other red grapes, such as merlot or tempranillo.
Still, tannat is not without its difficulties in the Uruguayan climate. Unlike neighboring Argentina, where much of the wine is produced in high desert conditions, Uruguay has a marine climate, and ill-timed rain can be a problem. Plus, tannat ripens late, although Hobbs -- who also makes wine in Chile, Argentina, France, Armenia and several other places, in addition to California -- notes that the grape has thick skin and resists rot.
"It's a pretty tricky proposition," Hobbs says.
Tannat does have another good quality, he adds: Although it ripens at about the same time as cabernet sauvignon, slightly underripe tannat lacks the green flavors of underripe cab.
The most important viticultural region is Canelones, a short drive from the capital, Montevideo. But grapes are grown in a number of places, including Carmelo, near the border with Argentina, and outside the resort town of Punta del Este on the coast.
One small winery in Canelones is the American-owned Artesana, founded in 2007 by Blake Heinemann and run by his niece, Leslie Fellows of Santa Cruz, along with the winery's two winemakers. Artesana makes a tannat and a tannat-merlot blend that are imported here, along with zinfandel, which remains in Uruguay. The Uruguayan winemakers, Analia Lazaneo and Valentina Gatti, say zinfandel is unlike any grape they've worked with.
"We have to work much more on the zinfandel than the other varieties," Gatti says.
The 2011 Artesana Tannat ($20) offers lively, structured black fruit with good concentration. It's showing some oak now, but the wine has come together nicely since I first tasted it six months ago. The 2011 Artesana Tannat Merlot ($20) tastes a little riper, with a soft finish.
The large Juanico winery, also in Canelones, produces the very affordable 2010 Pueblo del Sol Tannat ($12), which has lively, spicy black fruit and medium tannins, as well as the more structured 2012 Pueblo del Sol Tannat Reserva ($17).
Other wines from the Canelones region include the 2008 Pizzorno Tannat Reserva ($20), which is dark, ripe and lively, with red fruit, spice and drying tannins on the finish; the 2009 Marichal Premium Varietal Tannat ($19), with its spicy black fruit, slight cedary note, firm tannins and persistent finish; and the 2010 Bouza Tannat B6 ($39), which is very dark and dense, with ripe yet lively black fruit, good concentration and a long finish. All of these wines are available here.
Wines from two new projects with Argentine owners, Narbona and Garzon, should start showing up here over the next year. Narbona is a winery, dairy, inn and restaurant in the Carmelo region. The flagship 2011 Narbona "Luz de Luna" Tannat ($75) offers lively, spicy black fruit, a slight leafy note, good complexity and firm structure. Garzon, a large estate not far from Punta del Este, has 500 acres of wine grapes, as well as olives and other crops. The tannats and several whites show promise.
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Other Uruguayan wineries with some availability here include Castillo Viejo, with wines bottled under the CataMayor brand, and Gimenez Mendez. The 2008 Castillo Viejo "CataMayor" Tannat Reserva de la Familia ($16) is rich, plump and lively, with ripe black fruit, drying tannins and some chocolatey oak. I haven't tasted the current vintage of the Gimenez Mendez tannat, but the wines are generally well-made. The wines of Alto de la Ballena, a winery near Punta del Este, are arriving here for the first time this month. Look for the interesting tannat-merlot-cabernet franc blend and the plush, aromatic tannat-viognier.
The wines from Pisano Family Vineyards are available through Total Wine & More, a retail chain that doesn't have any local stores, but you can order the wines at www.totalwine.com. The 2009 Pisano "Rio de los Pajaros" Tannat ($13) is ripe yet lively, with spicy black fruit, a hint of anise and drying tannins, while the 2009 Pisano RPF Tannat ($17) is bigger and more tannic.
Considering the diversity of Uruguay's growing regions, it's not surprising that a number of varieties besides tannat are grown. Bouza makes an excellent 2012 albarino ($25), which offers racy, fresh citrus and green apple with some fleshiness. There are also hints of apple peel and white pepper. Dante Irurtia in Carmelo, whose wines aren't currently available in California, has some interesting whites, such as gewürztraminer and viognier. Pisano does a great job with torrontes and viognier. Nearly everyone seems to produce merlot. A number of wineries are trying their hand at pinot noir, with mixed results.