A Return to Uruguay for a Taste of Tannat

Last spring we tasted a group of wines from Uruguay that included Sauvignon Blanc, Moscatel and Cabernet Franc in addition to the country’s flagship variety, Tannat. That tasting was accompanied by a webinar that provided a detailed introduction to the country, its wine regions and growing conditions. We were impressed by the quality and affordability of the wines we tasted.

We recently had the opportunity to revisit Uruguay for a second tasting, this time focused on Tannat. We received five wines as tasting samples that accompanied an informative webinar presented by Peter Granoff, Master Sommelier. Before we taste, here is some of what we learned. 

  • Wine grapes were planted by Spanish colonialists in the 18th century and by French and Basque immigrants by the mid-19th century. Tannat was first planted in Uruguay in the 1870s by Pasqual Harriague and is sometimes called Harriague in Uruguay. 
  • Tannat has tough skins, which makes it somewhat resistant to Uruguay’s humid growing conditions. It has four to five large seeds, rather than the usual 2-3 small seeds. Both characteristics make Tannat high in resveratrol and contribute to its firm tannins and deep color. 
  • Tannat is the most-planted grape variety in Uruguay (27%), followed by Moscatel (19%), Merlot (11%), Ugni Blanc (10%) and Cabernet Franc (4%). Marselan, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Albariño all come in at single digits. 
  • Since emerging from dictatorship in 1985, Uruguay has functioned as a democracy and has a strong economy. The country’s modern wine industry has developed since then. INAVI (Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura) began regulation and oversight of wine production in Uruguay in 1987. 
Map of Uruguay wine regions
Uruguay Wine Regions. Map provided by Uruguay Wine
  • Uruguay is divided into 19 administrative departments and grapes are grown in 16 of them.  INAVI has defined six growing regions comprised of departments with similar growing conditions. The map is interactive by clicking the link below it. 
  • Canelones is home to 67% of grape plantings, followed by Montevideo 12%, Maldonado 7%, Colonia 5%, San José 4.7%, and other departments represent less than 2% to fractional percentages. 
  • Uruguay’s growing conditions are largely influenced by proximity to water. The Atlantic Ocean, Rio de Plata estuary and Uruguay River together surround the country on three sides. The Atlantic’s influence comes from the cold Malvinas Current, which moves north along the coast from the Antarctic, and the warmer Brazil Current, which moves south along the coast from Brazil. The two currents meet off the coast of Uruguay. The warmest and wettest conditions are in the north near Brazil. 
  • Uruguay is fourth in South America behind Chile, Argentina and Brazil in terms of wine production. Plantings total less than 15,000 acres and nearly three-quarters of the plots are less than 13 acres in size. 
  • Per capita consumption of wine in Uruguay is the highest outside of Europe at 22 liters and most wine made in Uruguay is consumed in Uruguay. 80% of wine is classified as Vino Común or VC (table wines), which may be packaged in Tetra Pak, glass demijohn and bag in box. VCP or Vino de Calidad Preferente represents 20% of production and is mostly what is exported to the US.
  • There are approximately 168 wineries in Uruguay and about 57 export their wines. Only about 5% of production is exported and the US is the largest export market beyond South America. 
  • Canopy management in the vineyard allows to Tannat achieve full ripeness in growing conditions that can be humid and rarely exceeds 80℉. Rain averages 49 inches annually, allowing vineyards to be dry farmed. Uruguay has not been immune from climate change, and has recently suffered through a three-year drought that is the worst in 74 years.

Whew, I’m thirsty. 

Let’s Taste

Photo of Vermut Flores Rosé NV, Canelones, Uruguay wine bottle on a table
Vermut Flores Rosé NV, Canelones, Uruguay

Vermut Flores Rosé NV, Canelones, Uruguaypale watermelon color with aromas of raspberries, spices and bitter herbs. Flavors are sweet and bitter at the same time with spicy flavors of dried orange peel, bitter herbs and berries. The body is a bit round with a long finish. 17% abv. SRP $19

The flavors are so complex, all you need do is pour this Vermouth Rosé over ice, add an olive and enjoy. The base wine is a Tannat rosé infused with roots, bark, herbs and flowers. It’s a taste of something very different and very refreshing.  

Photo of 2020 Cerro del Toro Tannat, Piriápolis, Maldonado, Uruguay wine bottle on a table
2020 Cerro del Toro Tannat, Piriápolis, Maldonado, Uruguay

2020 Cerro del Toro Tannat, Piriápolis, Maldonado, Uruguaydark ruby with garnet at the rim and aromas of ripe boysenberries. Flavors are a combination of ripe blackberries, black raspberries and earth. The body is medium with fine and drying tannins. 15% abv. SRP $25

100% Tannat was fermented in stainless steel and aged in stainless steel. It received no oak aging at all. The flavors are fresh and balanced. I was surprised to see the 15% abv, because I had no indication of the relatively high abv when tasting it. 

Photo of 2021 Garzón Reserva Tannat, Garzón, Maldonado, Uruguay wine bottle on a table
2021 Garzón Reserva Tannat, Garzón, Maldonado, Uruguay

2021 Garzón Reserva Tannat, Garzón, Maldonado, Uruguay dark ruby with aromas of blueberries, plums and dusty earth. Flavors include blueberries and plums in a medium body with drying, gauzy tannins. Fruit flavors are very fresh. 14% abv. SRP $18

100% Tannat was fermented in cement tanks and aged in French oak casks for 6 to 16 months.

Photo of 2020 Pisano RPF Tannat, Progreso, Canelones, Uruguay wine bottle on a table
2020 Pisano RPF Tannat, Progreso, Canelones, Uruguay

2020 Pisano RPF Tannat, Progreso, Canelones, Uruguaymedium ruby with aromas of dried tobacco and blackberries. Flavors include ripe plums, blackberries, tobacco and earth with juicy acidity. The body is medium with gauzy, drying tannins. 14% abv. SRP $24

100% Tannat aged for 10 to 12 months in French oak barrels. This wine is the best of the vintage, originally held back for the family, hence the name RPF, an abbreviation of Reserva Personal de la Familia.

Photo of 2018 Alto de la Ballena Tannat Viognier, Sierra de la Ballena, Maldonado, Uruguay wine bottle on a table
2018 Alto de la Ballena Tannat Viognier, Sierra de la Ballena, Maldonado, Uruguay

2018 Alto de la Ballena Tannat Viognier, Sierra de la Ballena, Maldonado, Uruguaydark ruby with aromas of blackberries and red raspberries. Flavors include red and dark berries and dried tobacco with juicy acidity. The body is medium with very grippy, gauzy tannins. 14% abv. SRP $26

85% Tannat, 15% Viognier were co-fermented and aged in American oak for nine months. 

All of these wines have a freshness about them reflected as lively fruit flavors. While tannins are substantial they are well integrated with flavors and body in the wines. 

During the presentation Peter Granoff mentioned Tannat’s tannins are managed in the wine cellar with pre-fermentation cold maceration, carbonic maceration and judicious use of oak.

Daniel Pisano, who operates Pisano Winery with his brothers Gustavo and Eduardo, told our group they do not “domesticate our Tannat”. He suggested, in the most friendly way, if you don’t like tannins, you should drink Pinot Noir. Rather than ‘domesticate’ Tannat, he suggests it be co-fermented with Syrah or Viogner, or blended. Daniel went on to note that Tannat makes a delicious blend with Pinot Noir. Pisano makes several Tannat blends.

You may not find Uruguayan Tannat on your grocery store shelf, but you will find it in a wine store – in person or online. It is well worth looking for. You will be supporting a family-run winery (even the largest wineries in Uruguay are small by most standards) and it represents an excellent value. As the weather warms and we begin grilling, Uruguayan Tannat will make the perfect accompaniment to grilled burgers, steaks, lamb or pork. 

Thanks to INAVI and Uruguay Wine, INAVI’s promotional arm, for sponsoring the presentation and tasting. Thanks also to Creative Palate Communications for organizing our tasting.  


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