Aspen Times Weekly: Can you say Uruguay?



ARTESANA 2011 Tannat-Zinfandel-Merlot Reserva

This American-owned winery with a pair of female winemakers is on the cutting edge of what wines from Uruguay may become. Winemakers Analía Lazaneo & Valentina Gatti produced a gem in this blend that, for fun, I will call a TZM. Rich, exploding with dark fruits and earth, it would be a great wine to put in front of a group of Master Sommeliers and ask “so where is that from?” This is a wine I would buy now.

ALTO DE LA BALLENA 2011 Reserve Tannat-Viognier

A beautiful, deep ruby-colored wine that you want to make sure does not splash from the glass onto your white linen trousers. Softened by a 10% dose of viognier, this is a great introduction to what Tannat tastes like. Big on the front, dry on mid-palate and lingering long on the finish. A great wine from The Hill of the Whale.

NARBONA 2010 Tannat-Roble

Near the Argentinian border lies the town of Carmelo and a 100-year-old winery that has been turned into the Narbona Wine Lodge, a Relais & Chateaux property. Here, another female winemaker, Valeria Chiola, who, according to the label, is making wines with “Wine Consultant” Michel Rolland, is turning out rich and elegant wines that may be the lynchpin in bringing Uruguayan Tannat to the people. At least to the people with money. This 100% Tannat is, again, big, fruit forward, dry and, well, Tannat. A side of beef ribs from Argentine grill Master Francis Mallman would be the perfect accompaniment.

“What do you know about Uruguayan wines?” asked a recent missive from a friend.

Well that stumped me. Tannat was all I could come up with. A single word. A single grape. I had a vague concept of where Uruguay was and a recollection of a surfing beach called Punta del Este, but that was about it. An immersion was needed.

Within days, a shipment of wines arrived from Charles Communications Associates, which represents Wines of Uruguay, the organization formed by the members of the Association of Exporting Wineries and the Association of Wine Tourism here in the U.S. The next week was spent tasting Tannat and learning about a place and space I had never considered. Immersion was underway.

First, a bit about Uruguay, which, keep in mind, is in mid- to late-fall as we speak. Yes, harvest has already happened for 2015. Uruguay is located in South America on the Atlantic seaboard, just to the north of Brazil. About the same size as the state of Washington and with less than 3.5 million people, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, as it is officially decreed, is known for having a stable government, a healthy economy and a record of environmental sustainability. In 2013 it became the first nation to legalize marijuana. Just sayin’.

Geographically, Uruguay is in a sweet spot for wine production ranging in latitude from 30 to 35 degrees south of the equator. Montevideo, the capital city and home to fully a third of the nation’s population, sits on the Atlantic at 34 degrees south. For perspective, the Santa Barbara, California, wine region sits on the Pacific at 34 degrees north. The soils are clay-rich and the abundant sunshine of the coastal regions makes it a special place in the world of wine.

Today there are maybe 200 wineries in the country and the production amounts to around 10 million cases, about equal to the amount made in the state of New York, which is America’s third-largest producer with 12 million cases annually. The people of Uruguay consume the vast majority of these wines, but in recent years a large jug of juice was sold to Russia, and China is also becoming a larger market as well.

While there are scattered small family vineyards throughout the country, there are four main wine regions: Canelones, Montevideo, Colonia and Maldonado, with Canelones dominating as it hosts 60 percent of the nation’s total production. Canelones, about an hour’s drive north from bustling Montevideo, would be the equivalent of what Napa is to San Francisco. The majority of the wines that I received came from Canelones.

There is a concerted effort on the part of the Uruguayan wine industry to tie its export fortunes to a single grape, Tannat. As Shiraz did for Australia, Sauvignon Blanc for New Zealand and Malbec for Argentina, the thinking is that if the country can become known as the cradle of Tannat it will raise the tide of the entire industry. It is a solid strategy in an increasingly crowded and competitive global wine market.

Tannat is a grape with origins in what is now the Madirin AOC wine region of Southwest France, near the Pyrenees Mountains that form the border with Spain. The grape was brought to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 1870s and thrived. Today it accounts for over 40 percent of total red wine production in the country with more than 8,500 acres planted to the grape, making Uruguay the world’s largest producer of Tannat.

As the name implies, it is a “tannic” grape and it makes big, dark wines that are crushers. It is thick skinned, easy to grow, relatively non-susceptible to disease and temperature swings, and is reputed to be one of the “healthiest” grapes due to its high tannin content. Antioxidents and resveratrol, the healthy elements of red wine, are very high in Tannat.

Of the 10 wines I tasted, there were great variations. A few were so astringent and tannic that they literally “dried” my tongue on first blush. These wines required food, grilled meat preferably, to be palatable. I also found a need to brush regularly after the tastings.

But others, though bursting with intensity and flavor, were restrained enough to be not just sippable, but delicious. My favorites were those that were mingled with other grapes, including Viognier, Syrah and, surprisingly, Zinfandel. There was a spice and earth characteristic to these wines that gave them a taste of “place” even though it was a place I did/do not know. (See notes on the wines in the adjacent box.)

The problem — yes, there is always one of those — is that these wines are almost impossible to come by in Colorado, or in much of America at this point. Keep an eye open for an opportunity to try Tannat from Uruguay.

Or perhaps schedule a trip. You can sip wine in Canelones and surf in Punta del Este. All in the same day.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black lab, Vino. He can be reached at