Tannat can be traced back to its first mention circa 1783-4 in Southwest France in the Madiran region. According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the name can be traced back to tanat from the Béarn dialect, which means “color of tan.” The wine isn’t certainly tan but darker than most and powerfully tannic, where the name may have also derived. Madiran’s flagship grape is still its most widely grown variety, and the wines there are required to carry 60 to 80 percent of the variety.
It’s almost as if the grape was looking for an international mistress, branching out to try and discover the far reaches of its potential. It seems as if it succeeded—when Basque émigré Pascual Harriague arrived in Uruguay and planted a vineyard of Tannat in Salta department in the north of Uruguay in 1870. The grape, affectionately called Harriague, adapted to its new home, with its clay soils and warm climate, quite quickly. Plantings of this grape flourished even after phylloxera hit. Although there was a wave of non-vinifera plantings in recovery, Tannat and its marriage with Uruguay stayed resilient. Instituted in the early 1980s, the Uruguayan National Institute for Vitiviniculture pushed toward replanting vinifera, which spurred growth in plantings. Today, Tannat accounts for nearly one-third of the country’s vineyard area and makes up most of the 50-plus-year-old vines in the country.
The grape itself is brawny and powerful—its thick deep-colored skins provide high phenols leading to roughly tannic wines. But there is a bold fruit profile—both red and black—and seductive secondary characters of black licorice, smoke, and roasted coffee. The grape is hardy against humidity and can stand its own from vintage to vintage, but the wines need to be massaged by a practiced hand to tame their astringent qualities. It seems Uruguayans are the right ones to do that. They’ve been perfecting ways to rein this quality through shorter macerations and the process of micro-oxygenation (a method originating in Southwest France that introduces oxygen into a wine, similar to slow barrel aging). It allows the producers to have a bold and ageable wine if they desire—or it may enable experimentation and expression.
Getting to know classic Tannat is integral to its understanding. In Uruguay, these powerful wines are made with finesse, and flavors of brown spices are well-integrated with a year or more of oak aging—as they are at Bodega Cerro Chapeu. Its unique location in the northern part of the country and their red-sand soil gives their Tannat wines notes of red fruit, dark plums, and violets, with well-integrated cedar flavors. Its smooth structure can be attributed to 12 to 18 months in oak and then an extra year of aging in bottle. Bodega Bouza takes the same approach to their Reserve wine. They are known on a global scale for exhibiting the grape’s best qualities in the clay soil of Canelones. It sees 13 months in oak, and the wines are made with the expert hand of self-proclaimed Tannat enthusiast Dr. Eduardo Boida. Bouza, with their B6 and A6 bottlings, showcases what Tannat can do in distinct single vineyard sites—a testament to the terroir that can be explored throughout the country. Their B6 is from the Las Violetas vineyard, more fruit-forward and floral, while their A6, from the pink granite soils of the Melilla vineyard, shows off more savory and earthy tones.
Uruguay provides a juxtaposition of traditional and aged Tannat styles with the innovation and experimentation of rebel winemakers. In the past few years, ambitious producers have begun to use the grape in more refreshing, natural, and unoaked styles. Gabriel Pisano, a 4th generation winemaker, started his project with Viña Progreso in 2009. He produces those traditional Tannat styles in oak but also makes a bottling called Elisa’s Dreams and one aptly named Barrel-less. The latter is done with ambient yeast to kickstart fermentation and sees a mere six months in barrel, with no fining and filtration—all producing a natural-style wine that achieves notes of more fresh and tart fruit. Antigua Bodega Uruguay’s Bella Donna wines do the same. The winery focuses of minimal intervention, and their Tannat, an almost translucent purple with flecks of blue, is unaged, with a distinct minerality and freshness. It doesn’t stop there.
Pisano offers their Río de los Pájaros Reserve Brut Nature which is, yes, sparkling Tannat. Narbona makes Tannat rosé in the Colonia district, and this isn’t your typical, light pink, watermelon-flavored summer porch-pounder. The skins give this wine a deep, dark color and those brooding flavors still jump from the wine while staying refreshing and light. Pleasantly, it’s a go-to for the dinner table as a formidable seafood pairing. Familia Deicas’s Licor de Tannat is a sweet wine at 20 percent alcohol. It takes all the licorice, black fruit, and coffee notes of Tannat and concentrates them—using the traditional methods of classic Port. There are violets on the nose and sweet milk chocolate on the finish.
It seems that Tannat’s travels to Uruguay to find itself paid off—expressing itself in ways that are true yet progressive. And Uruguay’s winemaking scene is just the same—Tannat is only just the beginning…