More famous for sport than wine, Brazil nevertheless has a vine-growing heritage that is coming to the fore. Steven Spurrier explores the country's regions and top estates, and is intrigued by what he finds...
Meanwhile, don’t overlook Uruguay…
Known as ‘the boutique’ in South America, Uruguay has barely more than 8,000ha planted to vine (Argentina has 200,000ha). Most are in the south around Montevideo, the capital; and 25% is Tannat.
Tannat, introduced in Uruguay in around 1870 by Basque immigrants, is not an easy variety, especially for modern palates that are used to smooth, ripe tannins. Tannat heads in the other direction – it is harsher and has firm tannins and thick skins, characteristics that allow it to adapt in a country where humidity is a major issue (1,000mm of rain falls annually, and the influences of the Atlantic and River Plate add even more humidity).
Although international consultants, such as Alberto Antonini and Michel Rolland, have tried to tame Tannat’s astringency with longer ripening and new oak barrels, true Tannat is wild – the type that can stand up to the juicy, fatty beef cooked on a Uruguayan barbecue. Closer to 13% alcohol than the 15% that is more common in the New World, these reds need years in the bottle, though Tannat is often made with Beaujolais-style carbonic maceration to calm its astringency and turn it into something simple, young, vibrant and crisp. If you close your eyes, the winemaking is closer to traditional European than it is to the warm and lush styles more often seen around here.
Finally, there’s the soil. Most of the ‘grand cru’ of Tannat is found in the southern zone, where 90% of Uruguayan viticulture is concentrated, and where clay-lime soils lend a peculiar austerity. More than nose, what they offer is palate, with imposing structure made of cement with no more adornment than its firm, marble-hard bones. More ambitious Tannats come from soils with a higher percentage of lime among the clay. Wineries such as Carrau, Los Cerros de San Juan, Antigua Bodega Stagnari, Estancia Piedra and De Lucca exemplify this austere, potent and deep style that Tannat can reach when it’s not over-ripened.
If you like Baga from Bairrada, if you think Sagrantino from Montefalco deserves more attention than it already gets, if you are among those who believe that Pinot Noir is not as feminine as everybody thinks and that Nebbiolo’s value is related more to its structure than its adorable floral aromas, then you might be in for a surprise with Tannat from the rolling hills along the Uruguayan coast – one of the best-kept secrets of South American viticulture.