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To Tannat, Or Not To Tannat?

Pisano Licor de TannatSorry, Uruguay, to beat up on your signature grape, but I’ve never been very fond of Tannat. The handful of 100% Tannat varietal wines I tried over the years invariably disappointed, with tough and woolly tannins which other flavors and textures in the wine failed to balance. Now, to be fair, the only Tannats I tried in years past cost $10 or less, which means I’d most likely never sampled a Tannat of serious quality. I looked forward, therefore, to the Wines of Uruguay tasting at this year’s Wine Blogger Conference. Would these Tannats — surely some of the country’s best — change my mind? I felt skeptical.

The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to be of two minds about Tannat. It calls Madiran (a wine of southwestern France) “Tannat’s noblest manifestation,” but later goes on to say that Tannat “seems to thrive better in the warmer climate of its new home in South America than southwest France.” The Companion may hem and haw, but The World Atlas of Wine has no problem being direct, stating that “the Tannat produced in Uruguay is much plumper and more velvety than in its homeland in southwest France, and can often be drunk when only a year or two old — most unlike the prototype Madiran.” (Jancis Robinson wrote/co-wrote both books.)

Unfortunately, “plumper” and “more velvety” are relative terms, and they don’t really help answer the question of whether it’s generally a good idea to buy Uruguayan Tannat or not. My experience with Tannat is still far too meager to offer definitive advice, but I stand behind what I wrote in this blog post about a certain Tannat-based blend: Look for Tannat-based blends. In a blend, Tannat’s tannins are much likelier to be softer and more in balance.

With the additional experience of the Wines of Uruguay tasting, I would lengthen that advice to: Look for Tannat-based blends, or a Tannat varietal from a winery you trust. Which means you need a wine shop you trust, or you can trust this blogger and keep an eye out for one of these:

2011 Don Pascual Reserve Shiraz Tannat: Let’s ease into things with a 70% Shiraz/30% Tannat blend. The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia called “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This blend had an intriguing aroma of vanilla and black pepper, a velvety start on the tongue, a taut midsection and a tart, irony finish. Fruity, bright and pleasantly restrained, this wine was “not overblown, as I must admit I feared,” according to my (decidedly overblown) tasting notes.

2011 Bouza Tannat Reserva: You might have trouble finding this Tannat — it doesn’t even appear on the winery’s website. But if you do run across it, snap it up. I loved the enticing aroma of creamy raspberries, and the rich, up-front fruit on the palate. It grew into some black pepper spice before significant tannins came to the fore, but they weren’t overwhelming. I wrote that this was “as elegant a Tannat as I’ve ever found.”

2011 Giménez Méndez “Identity” Tannat: The “Identity” brand also doesn’t appear on Giménez Méndez’s website, but I would certainly keep an eye out for it. This Tannat sucked me in with its nose of dark, dusky fruit. Also restrained, this wine had a pleasing aromatic quality in the midsection, and serious but perfectly manageable tannins. Another fine Tannat.

2005 Pisano “Etxe Oneko” Licor de Tannat: The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also speaks highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” If that weren’t exciting enough, I discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of Port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano in the comments below) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed by, as you might expect, a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

Four winners in a row. I got off to a rocky start with Tannat, there is no question, but these wines have me seriously reconsidering. If you like big reds, and you’re in the mood for something a little different, you could do a lot worse than a well-crafted Uruguayan Tannat. And if you like Port, you could hardly do better than Pisano’s Etxe Oneko.

For some more about Uruguayan wine and reviews of some whites, check out this post.

Tannat, Uruguay

6 Comments to “To Tannat, Or Not To Tannat?”

  1. If you go to the Argentinian side try the winery Don David, they have a pure tannat from ’06 that is killer. They are more known for their malbec there, but its not even close.

  2. Thanks for the attention you bring to Tannat. You do have to pay a little more to find a good Tannat from Uruguay. This is because most of the wineries are small producers. Chile’s Concha y Toro winery produces more wine than all of Uruguay. Tannat can be made in many styles, including elegant and bold, just as all grapes can depending on ripeness level, elaboration, barrel aging etc. Tannat generally produces rich, full-bodied wines with dark fruit and spice aromas and flavors. Named for its high tannin content, Tannat has been found to be the healthiest of red wines with 3-4 times more antioxidants and an average resveratrol concentration of 4.2%. Tannat is starting to get some traction here in the US and deservedly so. There are many outstanding wines being made in Uruguay. Ask your local wine merchant to bring one in for you. My winery is Artesana, not sure if you had a chance to try one of our wines at the Conference. My winemakers are 2 award-winning Uruguayan women who are quickly becoming the rising stars of Uruguay. We have a 100% Tannat and a Tannat-Merlot blend that are sold in California and Pennsylvania. To Tannat, Salud!

    • Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for your comment! And you’re right – spending a little more definitely gets you a better Tannat. Which only makes sense. I had no idea it was regarded as the healthiest red wine though – that’s fascinating! I don’t think I got to try your wines, unfortunately, but I will definitely keep an eye out for Artesana in the future. Salud!

      –Rob

  3. Dear Rob Frisch,

    My name is Daniel Pisano from Pisano Family in Uruguay. Many thanks for your enthusiastic comments about Uruguay’s wines!… and in particular about our Etxe Oneko Late Harvest Fortified Tannat. EtXe Oneko, would translate into “from the house of a good family” or “the Best of the House” depending if it were “Old Basque” or “New Basque”, but always related to the House of the Family and the Best produce of the Family.

    Please note that already in 2006 Roy Hersh http://www.fortheloveofport.com wrote this comment you can check at http://www.wineloverspage.com/forum/village/viewtopic.php?p=105212 Roy told me that he never writes about a “non Port wine” but in this case he did it because the Etxe Oneko without question was beyond his expectations and deserved the exception.

    A word about Tannat in Uruguay. My grandfather being Italian, started planting Italian grapes from the North like Nebbiolo, Bonarda and Barbera back in 1916 when he initiated his Uruguayan vineyard… But he soon discovered that his neighbours made a better wine with Tannat so he switched to planting more and more Tannat… and so did everybody. After a few decades we discovered Uruguay has the biggest Tannat vineyard in the World (which is not really big but is the biggest). All this means that we didn’t choose Tannat but Tannat chose us. The secret for ripe tannins is low yields… and low yields means higher prices to make a living. Why a customer would pay 5 extra dollars per bottle than the average “New World fighting varietal”?… Because Uruguayan wines are odd, rare, unusual and obscure… and on top of that they are good, very good and extremely good in most cases. But, the main value is that they come from a producer rather than a factory, and for this reason you can taste the character of the producer: we like to say that in Uruguay the wines are like the dogs that resemble their Master. We look forward to seeing you soon in Uruguay, and when you come look at the owner and taste the wine: they are alike.

    A word about the environmental issue in Uruguay: The World Atlas of Wine has exaggerated a bit to much when saying “that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.”
    At Pisano we have a sui generis or distinctive and all our own system, adapted to Uruguay conditions, not “religiously organic” but 99% organic which combines organic or semi organic and biodynamic practices, some inherited from our grandfather and some that are IPM (integrated pest management), resulting in a “Nature Friendly” managing of our vineyards. This system uses zero insecticides, zero chemical fertilizers and yes mild fungicides in wet spring years. In any case, we are never worse than Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont or Tuscany and probably much healthier.

    Daniel Pisano | Familia Pisano Viñedos & Bodegas | Progreso, Uruguay
    Tel. +598 2368 9077 | daniel@pisanowines.com | http://www.pisanowines.com | FACEBOOK Pisano Artesanía en Vinos Finos
    Nº1 Exporter of Fine Wines from Uruguay for 3 years!

    • Dear Mr. Pisano,

      Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed comment in response to my post! Your comment was very informative – I especially love how Uruguayan wines so closely resemble the producers.

      It’s also reassuring to hear that you’re able to use many organic and biodynamic practices. And it’s true – the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux aren’t exactly all chemical-free! I brought up chemical use (in this post) in the case of Uruguay, because I’ve seen the pristine environment used as a selling point more than once. I’m sure it varies greatly from winery to winery – it sounds like you really take pains to keep things as chemical-free as possible, which is great.

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts, and I hope to try more Pisano wines soon!

      Cheers,

      Rob

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