I recently had an opportunity to participate in an online master class and tasting of Uruguayan wines with Joaquin Hidalgo, South American editor at Vinous and wine columnist for Argentina’s leading newspaper. I was vaguely familiar with Uruguay’s signature red grape, Tannat, but beyond that, I knew little. It’s not covered much in most wine certification curriculum, but I bet it will be soon enough, because these wines are LEGIT! And they are not all Tannat; there are some gorgeous whites and red blends using international varietals like Merlot and Tempranillo. Come with me, let’s take a closer look.
Uruguayan Wine Basics
- First of all, do you know where Uruguay is? It’s a tiny little country just east of Argentina. And when I say tiny, I mean, like, barely larger than the Saint-Émilion AOC in France’s Bordeaux region, and only slightly larger than the state of New York. It’s like a little puzzle piece fitted between Buenos Aires, Argentina and the southernmost tip of Brazil.
- There are 164 wineries in Uruguay, and the top grapes under wine are Tannat (3,892 acres), Merlot (1,532 acres), Cabernet Sauvignon (833 acres), Cab Franc (534 acres), Marselan (a kind of obscure cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache). White grapes include Sauvignon Blanc (325 acres, Chardonnay(267 acres) and Albariño (235 acres). There are more, of course, but these are the most widely planted.
- Tannat, which hails from France, was first brought to the country by an Italian immigrant. Tannat is a thick-skinned red grape that can handle heat, wine and humidity and is considered to be among the best for you, containing three times more resveratrol (an important antioxidant) than most red Bordeaux varieties.
- For food pairings, Uruguayans love beef, beef and more beef. There are a lot of cattle raised in Uruguay (similar to Argentina), but like other bold red wines, there’s a whole universe of other pairings.
Read to taste? Let’s go!
The sample pack contained NINE bottles, and I have to say one of the most fun bottles was a Vermouth of Tannat, called Vermut Flores. I did this tasting with another wine-loving friend who owns a social club stuffed with wine lovers, and we both went bananas over this vermouth!
Or should I say we went “cherries” because that was the first note we caught, followed by rosemary and pine needles, with some spices. On the palate, it had a sweetness that was tempered by the herbaceous notes, and we agreed it had sweetness, spice and savoriness.
The tasting sheet included a little cocktail recipe and after the tasting was over, we made it. There are no hard measurements; just pour the Vermut Flores over ice, add a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a few olives (a small pinch of Maldon sea salt works beautifully, too) and top with tonic water or club soda. YUH-MEE!!! I plan on finding more of this, because it was light, refreshing and hard to put down! And at $16 a bottle, it is super affordalicious.
Next up is a crazy-interesting dry Moscatel. Everyone gets mixed up with the “M” wines: Moscato, Muscadet, Muscat of Alexandria, Moscatel. Moscatel is usually a sweeter white wine, but this one clocks in at 12% alcohol, which signifies that it was fermented dry (lower alcohol = sweeter wine).
This Bracco Bosca Dry Moscastel unleashed an aroma bomb of honeycomb, marshmallow, honeysuckle, white pepper. and then on the palate, it was a tidal wave of lime zest and a s aline note that we equated to Castelvetrano olives, because there was also a silky texture. Damn, it was good! We knew it would positively SING with spicy, savory food, so after I made chicken enchiladas (which nearly required a 911 call, they were so spicy), I knew this wine would be perfect and it was! Spicy food can be hard to pair and everyone defaults to Riesling or Gewurztraminer, but I say, find this dry Moscatel and let me now what you think. It’s a game-changer! ($16).
Marichal Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($14). Okay, at first I got a whiff of weirdness (like canned green beans and mushrooms) on this wine, which can come from excess volatile sulfur (or lack of exposure to air during the wine-making process), BUT … on the palate, it was lovely! All lime zest and salty ocean air. It’s crisp, dry and refreshing and would make fast friends with chicken dishes, salads, even a tuna sammie.
Okay, let’s tear through these five fabulous reds from Uruguay.
Alto de la Ballena Reserva 2018 Tannat Viognier ($24) This quirky blend of Tannat with Viognier (a white grape that hails from the Northern Rhône) is what I call a “big boy.” The tannins were massive and the wine was a little tight, this may just need some air (an hour in a decanter) or it will simmer down in the bottle over a year or so. It was all deep, dark black and blue fruit, blackberry and black plum, and there’s no question that it’s got some new oak on it (v. vanilla, almost a marshmallow note, from the oak). I tasted it using a Coravin (the device that lets you extract an ounce or so of wine without uncorking it) ,so i’m going to let this bottle rest some more, because I’m betting it will be gorgeous with a grilled steak in the future.
Gran Tannat 2019 from Montes Toscanini ($45-$59) This beauty has a nose of blueberry yogurt (I know, but it’s a thing – that tartness of yogurt comes through), a bit herbaceous (think green peppers) and…. yep, graham crackers (I think that’s the oak talking. This is a full-bodied red that is begging for beef stew and other rich, savory meat or mushroom dishes.
Bodegones del Sur Cabernet Franc 2020 ($20) We loved this wine! It’s full-bodied, but so bright with cherries and raspberries and none of Cab Franc’s trademark vegetal (green pepper) note. It’s dry, fruity – a perfect pizza wine, burger wine, barbecue wine. A great, casual, everyday ripper of a red.
Bouza Monte Vide Eu 2019 Tempranillo Merlot-Tannat ($67) Another full-bodied red, this time with rich strawberry-rhubarb compote, strawberry fruit leather, a little dark chocolate, elegant, silky tannins. This is a generous, gracious wine to savor with an excellent meal.
Pisano RPF Tannat 2018 ($24) RPF stands for Reserva Personal de la Familia and this wine is a medium-bodied wine and a very elegant expression of Tannat. You’re going to find red cherries and cranberry on the nose and your palate is going to get the same plus bonus notes of dark chocolate / mocha, a dash of vanilla (from the oak). It’s an easy-drinker and we really liked it.
Gimenez Mendez Alta Reserva Tannat 2020 ($18) We thought this drank like a much older wine, showing strawberry jam, pickled plums, blackberry and cassis notes. It’s big, fresh, intense, and very well-balanced. The richness of the ripe fruit is supported with nice acidity.
It was really interesting learning about and tasting what Uruguayan winemakers are doing today. The wines exceeded my expecations – they are really high quality. If you’re curious and looking to explore, I always encourage people to ask your local wine shop if they carry – or can order for you – wines that you want to try. I hope you’ll let me know what you think! And please visit the Uruguay Wine website to learn more. Cheers!