And could Tannat by the new Malbec? Jane Anson looks at Uruguay's adoption of the Tannat grape and learns about fresh initiatives that could help to get the country on restaurant wine lists.
You might have caught the news story earlier this year, about the opening of the world’s first drive-thru steakhouse in the seaside city of Punta del Este in Uruguay.
This is a country with the highest per-capital beef consumption in the world, where cattle outnumber people four to one, so a drive-thru for picking up a piece of (raw or grilled, cut to order) steak was maybe only a matter of time. But the real story isn’t the Las Nenas steakhouse, it’s the meat itself.
Uruguay meat has long been the choice for the world’s best chefs. All beef in the country is organic, pasture-reared, grass-fed, with hormones banned since 1968. But over the past decade the country has slowly turned from focusing not only on quality but on producing a completely computerized traceability system for its meat. Its ‘pasture to plate’ programme that has been mandatory since 2013 sees every animal chipped at birth and is able to trace animal, age and provenance right down to individual farm, its production processes, field of grazing and any specific associated stories – and is entirely free to the producer, paid for by the government at a cost of around US$3 million to promote the country’s US$1.5 billion export market.
The expense involved makes it a gamble perhaps, but as food security becomes more of a global issue, Uruguay is likely to become even more of a Michelin-chef favourite with this approach. And sommeliers worldwide should be paying attention, because the programme is currently being expanded to the country’s 300-or-so wine properties and 3,500 growers.
Uruguay is the only country to have taken Tannat as its national grape
Uruguay is South America’s fourth biggest wine producer, but currently less than 5% of its bottles are exported, mainly because the vast majority of properties are small (average 5 hectares) and family-run. Only 15% of them make the highest quality VCP (Vinos de Calidad Preferente) wines. Uruguay is perhaps also not helped by its focus on a less internationally sexy grape than its neighbours Argentina and Chile – not Malbec, Merlot or Cabernet but Tannat, that thick-skinned, little-loved grape whose traditional home lies in Madiran, southwest France (Andrew Jefford wrote an excellent piece just a few days ago on Madiran).
Tannat does well in Uruguay because it is the only South American country with an Atlantic Ocean influence. You can find penguins on the beach here in February, and the cool climate makes the thick skin of Tannat a huge bonus. It was first brought to the country by Basque immigrant Pascal Harriague in 1870, and today represents over 25% of plantings. It has pockets of popularity elsewhere – Virginia, for example, Salta in Argentina, and I was just yesterday recommended the apparently excellent version by the Perrin-Haas joint venture Tablas Creek in Paso Robles – but Uruguay is the only country to have taken Tannat as its national grape.
Estates like Bodega Garzon – located in a coastal village of the same name, close to Punta del Este by coincidence – have produced a more contemporary-styled version that is helping to smooth Tannat’s image of rustic, hard tannins in international markets. But the government’s geo-referencing initiative that is learning from the beef sector of the importance of high tech traceability, should also prove a powerful tool to improve exports.
The country’s vineyards are currently being mapped and classified in a computer database, with plans to have 100% traceability in place by next year. It will offer drinkers information on the climate, soil types, parcels, grape varities, vintage and producer of each wine sold, as well as their sustainability initiatives.
I learnt about this at a tasting of Uruguan wines given by sommelier friend Gilles de Chambure in Bordeaux last week. As part of the Cité du Vin’s tasting programmes, de Chambure was hosting a wines of Uruguay evening. He previously worked with Garzon, and talked about how the country’s agricultural heritage makes it perfectly placed for the increasing global focus on natural, provenance-assured wines.
‘Because Uruguay is a small agricultural country the use of chemicals in viticulture basically never happened,’ de Chambure said. ‘There is so much open space that one of the country’s income streams is planting trees for other countries to buy as carbon offsetting. The country runs on 80% renewable energy and 85% of country’s land is agricultural’.
I contacted Martin Lopez at the Wines of Uruguay for more details. He confirmed the ‘ambitious plan that is funded by the National Wine Institute (INAVI). The intention is that by the end of 2018 every bottle of Uruguayan wine will have its geo-referencing QR code on the label. By scanning the code, consumers can find details about the origin of the wine, right down to the individual plot of vineyard where the grapes were grown, and its accompanying stories. In other words, it is a tool that provides important food safety data to producers and consumers’.
Match this with a sustainable, green-winemaking image and you have a powerful proposition for sommeliers looking for the next Jura to champion. Uruguay, and with it Tannat, might just provide an answer.
Wines to Try
Bodega Garzon Single Vineyard Albariño Uruguay VCP 2016
Owned by billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni with Alberto Antonini as consultant winemaker, Garzon makes a brilliant range of wines that also have the benefit of worldwide distribution. This 100% Albarino has attractive fleshy ripe nectarine and apricot flavours, and clear salinity on the finish. Grown on granite soils close to the coastline in Maldonado region, it is fermented and aged in 80% cement vats, 20% oak. Only a handful of producers make Albariño in Uruguay but on this showing more should be trying. 14.5%abv.
Bodega Garzon Single Vineyard Tannat Uruguay VCP 2015
This says 100% Tannat, but I’m told they sometimes add a touch of Petit Verdot or Marselan. Whatever the blend, this was easily the slickest of the four Tannats tasted at the Cité du Vin, and offers great balance, full bodied, good grip and succulent black fruits, tobacco and dark chocolate with a fresh finish. They harvest late to ensure full ripeness of the Tannat, cropping at a healthy 40hl/h and ageing for 12 months in French oak. 14.5%abv.
Pisano Tannat / Syrah / Viognier Rio de los Pajaros Reserva Uruguay VCP 2015
I’m including this as it was an interesting example of a blend of Tannat, Syrah and Viognier, (and that also has good international distribution). Blending is an approach being taken more and more regularly with the red wines of Uruguay, with the touch of the white Viognier grape intended to soften the burly tannins on a pure Tannat. The results are promising – it didn’t have the immediate impact of the bigger-styled wines but grew on me over the tasting, with softer flavours of wild cherries and raspberries, still held in by a firm frame. 14%abv.
Narbona Puerto Carmelo Tannat Roble 2013
One of the best known Uruguan wines, from the Carmelo region with Michel Rolland as consultant and Maria Chiloa as winemaker. Roble means oak and this is old style, full oak flavours, and for me similar in approach to a classic Mardiran Tannat – full-bodied, powerful, concentrated, demanding, with spicy, leather and olive notes. 14%abv