Daniel Pisano is holding court at the head of a farmhouse table. “Some people are trying to domesticate tannins,” he says, gesturing to his glass of tannat. “We say, ‘Why domesticate the thoroughbred? If you don’t like the nerve of that kind of horse, buy yourself a pony.’ Or plant merlot, which is naturally soft.”
His brother Gustavo and nephew Gabriel dole out plates of meat as Daniel talks tannat. In the far corner, a chef pulls another round of sausage from the wood-burning stove. “Bring more sweetbreads,” Daniel says as he pours an ink-colored sparkling tannat into our glasses. He plies me with the crispiest sweetbreads, and the Pisano tannat, with its bright flavors and fruit-skin tannins, pairs exceptionally well with the decadent, salty offal.
The Pisanos, descendants of an Italian immigrant who first planted this vineyard in 1916, have been making their own wine here since 1923. Initially, they farmed Italian varietals like nebbiolo, bonarda and barbera, which produced, Daniel says, “light but uninteresting wines.” So, within a few years, they had ripped out the vines and planted tannat instead.
Tannat is not native to Uruguay. Rather, the variety, long associated with France’s Madiran, arrived in Uruguay in the hands of a Basque immigrant. Pascal Harriague planted it in the north, in Uruguay’s Salto region, in the early 1870s. Over the course of the next 100 years, it became the country’s most planted variety, as Spanish and Italian immigrant families like the Pisanos tore out their more familiar vines and replaced them with tannat—or Harriague, as it was known until virus-free tannat clones arrived from France and California in the early 1970s. Within two decades, most of the remaining Harriague cuttings had been replaced by the new plant material.
But even so, tannat’s tannins can be savage, Daniel tells me; so, to tame that dragon, the family trains their vines on single cordons and drops fruit early in the season to restrict yields. The Pisanos make two different styles of tannat. One, the Reserva de la Familia, reflects their traditions, the must macerating at room temperature, with skin contact, the wine fermenting in cement vats, then aging in new oak barrels to soften the tannins. They also produce tannat in a fresher style, macerating the must at 50°F for up to a week, extracting fruit flavor and color without picking up excess tannins. They then rack the juice, ferment it without the skins and, eventually, the wines go straight from stainless-steel tanks or cement vats to bottle.
It’s a style of Uruguay’s tannat that’s recently come into vogue, one that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago, Daniel says, a fresh style with lighter tannins.
Eight miles south of the Pisano Winery, en route to Montevideo, Laura Casella farms tannat at Antigua Bodega Stagnari, a family winery founded in 1928 and now run by Virginia Stagnari. The vine rows are bookended by roses and, as Casella leads me down a grassy path between the vines, she points out a quarry that seems to begin at the edge of their estate and looms pinkish-brown against the green of the vineyard. At the end of the path, Casella parts tall grasses alongside a giant palm tree. As we step through, the quarry comes into full view, bulldozers rumbling across terraces of pink granite.
While the majority of the Canelones region may be clay soils mixed with limestone, Stagnari’s vines grow in three feet of sandy clay set atop that 500-million-year-old bedrock of pink granite. The topsoil gives the vines’ roots more access to the granite, and the chance to extract the minerals they need for their metabolism, says Casella, as we head back to her brick-walled tasting room. Stagnari and Casella pour a range of tannats and blends, all of them vibrant with scents of purple flowers and early summer berries, including Mburucuya, a tannat blend they make only in exceptional years. Both the 2015 and 2011 Mburucuya contrast earthiness with lively scents of violets and black pepper, flavors of new summer jam and crunchy tannins.
While growers have found their soils, whether calcareous clay or pink granite, accommodating to tannat, Federico de Moura, the sommelier at 1921 in Montevideo, talked climate as he poured me several local tannats. In the south, he explained, the Rio de la Plata contributes to the drop in nighttime temperatures, with diurnal shifts of as much as 23°F at wineries like Pisano and Stagnari, which helps tannat vines retain that acidity and those high fruit tannins in their grapes. From Montevideo, the Rio de la Plata continues in a mix of fresh and salt water for roughly 80 miles, to the country’s eastern wine region. “The pure ocean starts in Punta del Este,” de Moura said. “That is ground zero for the Atlantic Ocean in Uruguay. That’s the start of the real difference.”
Just northwest of Punta del Este, the wind howls off the ocean and sweeps across vines that look as if they are clutching at the granite and quartz rock. Here, roughly 16 miles inland, Viña Edén stands at 560 feet above sea level, against the Pueblo Edén mountains. It’s a completely different landscape than Canelones, the rolling hills composed of ancient granite with veins of white and gray quartz. And there’s the ocean wind—“the virazón,” director Mauricio Zlatkin calls it—sweeping off the Atlantic, often carrying mist that spatters the three-story walls of glass at the winery.
The beach town of Punta del Este straddles a hook of coastline where the Rio de la Plata meets the Atlantic. From there, the road winds east, between sandy dunes and scrubby brush and pine, and into the country’s newest wine region.
This newest exploration of tannat terroir has been financed by Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, who came to this rural region looking to expand his energy empire with wind farms. After his team found the property, a friend recommended that Bulgheroni talk with Tuscan winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini who, in 2007, encouraged him to plant a small experimental vineyard and wait five years to see how it performed. Bulgheroni, then 74 years old, declined. “I told him I wasn’t young enough for that,” Bulgheroni recalls over lunch with German Bruzzone, Bodega Garzón’s chief winemaker. “We’ll plant it all.” So, they started with 370 acres in 2008 and added 222 more in 2011.
After lunch, he leads me past a massive piece of granite that rises above the winery. Bruzzone describes it as a chunk of Pangaea that broke off 175 million years ago and came to rest here. In the cellar, the granite comprises one full wall, facing rows of tulip-shaped cement vats, where Garzón ages its single-vineyard wines, including components of its top selections, Balasto and Petit Clos.
Bruzzone and his team use oak sparingly; only a few of the top wines see any oak at all (Balasto, Petit Clos, as well as the single-vineyard tannat and petit verdot). The vessels are relatively neutral, 1,500 and 2,500 liters, and over the course of 12 to 18 months, the oxygen exchange in those large vats helps soften tannat’s fruit tannins without contributing perceptible oak tannins.
The 2017 Reserve Tannat gives gentle scents of huckleberry and dried sage, its freshness expressed in flavors of black-cherry skin and black raspberries still in the bramble. It’s tannat, Uruguayan style: Fresh and bright, with fruit tannins that capture the Atlantic winds.