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Could wines from Uruguay be the next big thing?

Jan. 21, 2014 at 4:10 PM ET

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Could wines from Uruguay be the next big thing? Try vino made from the tannat grape.

I’ve mentioned to several people in recent weeks that I’ve been tasting – and enjoying – a broad sampling of wines from Uruguay, and with the exception of one guy in the office who had just come back from a vacation there, no one had heard of Uruguayan wines.

Such is the level of recognition of this still under-the-radar wine region. But I have no doubt that this will change – and fast, based on my sampling of a dozen or so wines, which left me with the sense that the wines of Uruguay are poised to become the next big thing from South America.

When I say the wines, I am talking mainly about one grape: tannat. It is to Uruguay what malbec is to neighboring Argentina, the country’s dominant and defining variety. Like malbec, tannat was brought to South America from France in the mid- to late 1800s. Both grapes are still important in southwest France (in the Cahors appellation for malbec and in Madiran for tannat), where they produce dark, tannic wines that need at least a few years or so of aging to soften.

In South America, with its abundant sunshine, the grapes produce somewhat riper, more opulent wines that can be enjoyed sooner. In Uruguay, tannat benefits from the cooling influence of the maritime climate in the south along the Atlantic where most of the grapes are grown. Many of the wines are marked by a refreshing acidity.

Uruguay is starting to promote its wines more heavily, and some wineries have turned to well-known consultants, including Michel Rolland of France and Alberto Antonini from Italy. But I hope the wines don't become too "internationalized." There is a slightly rustic honesty to them at this point, a small-production innocence, if you will, that gives them charm and distinction.

Many have elegance and finesse and deliver great fruit with modest alcohol. In fact, the six tannats I am recommending have alcohol from just 12 to 13.8 percent. They are from four vintages (2009-2012) and are made both with and without oak aging. Here are my favorites:

Bodega Marichal 2011 Tannat Premium Varietal, Canelones. Lots of complexity with blueberry and plum notes and accents of meat, leather and smoke. Softly tannic. It’s good pairing with meats, but also a good choice for salmon and other full-flavored fish. About $16. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers, Berkeley, Calif.

Familia Irutia 2009 Tannat, Carmelo. Well balanced and light but concentrated with plum, blackberry and blueberry notes. Bordeaux-like elegance. About $12. Imported by Golden Horseshoe, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bodegas Castillo Viejo “Catamayor” 2010 Tannat, San Jose. Elegant with blackberry and blueberry notes and touches of cedar and meat. Medium-bodied, relatively soft and accessible. About $11. Imported by Bedford International, Larchmont, N.Y.

Bodega Garzon 2012 Tannat, Garzon. Intense and concentrated with ripe blackberry fruit and a good deal of new oak along with leather and graphite notes. Young but already delicious. About $15.

Pueblo del Sol 2010 Tannat, Juanico. Relatively soft with herb-infused blackberry tastes. Smooth and accessible and the best value of the tastings at about $10. Imported by TasteVino Selections, Napa, Calif.

Bodegas Carrau 2011 Tannat de Reserva, Las Violetas. Fresh cherry and raspberry notes lead to darker fruit tastes as the wine opens up. Well integrated oak provides a subtle milk chocolate note. The wine was great with a beef Burgundy. Another excellent value at about $12. Imported by Bodegas Carrau, Manhasset, N.Y.

While tannat is Uruguay’s signature grape, many others are grown there too. Two white wines I tasted also stood out. Bodega Marichal’s 2012 Chardonnay ($16), is made without oak but has complexity and elegance, with green apple, citrus and refreshing acidity. And Bodegas Carrau’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($11) is notable and different with pear, tropical fruit and strawberry tastes and floral, herb and spice notes, including a hint of fresh ginger. 

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