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Atlantic Tannat
A mountain red settles on the coast of Uruguay

by Julie H. Case
May 13, 2019

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.”

Gabriel Pisano’s home, surrounded by acres of Tannat, as seen from the winery Gabriel Pisano’s home, surrounded by acres of Tannat, as seen from the winery
We’re in Canelones, in southern Uruguay, at Pisano Winery’s kitchen and tasting room, where the rafters are lined with dust-covered bottles from Burgundy, Maipo and Mendoza. He’s poured a taste of the 2017 Pisano de Los Pajaros, a tannat full of violet scents and flavors of blueberry jelly—not jam, but jelly—and a hint of pepper. It’s both powerful and remarkably fresh, and I’m surprised. I’d come to Uruguay expecting extraction and big, round, juicy reds—not acid. Not freshness. Yet here it was: bright fruit notes and bracing acidity. And, all of those fruit tannins.

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.

Bodega Antigua Stagnari Bodega Antigua Stagnari
It’s a curious variety to become a country’s flagship. In Madiran, planted some 60 miles from a different Atlantic coast, tannat vines hug the foothills of the Pyrenées mountains. In Canelones, Pisano’s vines grow on a plain 20 miles north of the Rio de la Plata estuary. “We have a Burgundy soil [calcareous clay] with a Bordeaux climate,” he says. It has nothing to do with Mendoza, 800 miles west into the arid continental climate of the Andes. Instead, it rains here year-round, and winds sweep up from the Antarctic and across the Rio de la Plata, the broad estuary that separates Uruguay from Argentina. The windy maritime climate favors tannat with moderate alcohol levels.

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.

Daniel Pisano in his winery’s kitchen Daniel Pisano in his winery’s kitchen
In 2013, Zlatkin bottled Viña Edén’s first vintage in this modern winery where the fruit arrives at the open-air third floor, and then is taken by gravity through crush, fermentation and into barrel or cement tanks. Some of Viña Edén’s best lots are fermented and aged in 3,500- and 5,000-liter cement tanks and 4,500-liter concrete amphorae, providing just enough micro-oxygenation for tannat’s tannins, without the influence of oak. Zlatkin presents that selection as Cemento, a wine with singing fruit tannins. Its fruit flavors are bright and just ripe—like cherries straight from the tree, plus a hint of branch or cherry bark as well.

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.

Vina Eden winery Vina Eden winery
A few miles inland, Bodega Garzón’s terraced decks overlook undulating hills covered in albariño and tannat. Below the winery, terraces of grapes dive into ravines and lean toward gullies. Across 592 acres of vines, 11 miles from the Atlantic, the team at Garzón farms 1,000 parcels divvied up by slope, soil characteristics and orientation. There’s tannat at the top of the hill and at the bottom; there’s tannat that faces north to catch the midday sun, and tannat that faces south for a cooler exposure. While they learn from the diversity of the results, they also have a lot of distinctive components to blend into their wines.

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.

Alejandro Bulgheroni at Bodega Garzon Alejandro Bulgheroni at Bodega Garzon
Bruzzone says that the proximity to the Atlantic’s cooling breezes is key to their success with tannat. “We get a lot of rain,” he tells me, describing how the rain drains off quickly through the sandy, granitic soils. And the ocean winds help dry the clusters, diminishing the opportunity for mildew or botrytis to attack the grapes.

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.

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2019.
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Tags  Tannat  Uruguay