LWF 2019 Uruguay Beyond Tannat: South America’s Best Kept Secret

This is the second of our two write-ups from masterclasses at the recent London Wine Fair 2019. On this occasion, the topic was Uruguay Beyond Tannat, hosted by another Master of Wine called Peter, this time Peter Richards MW, whom many of you will know from his regular appearances on Saturday Kitchen. 

The title of the class was well-chosen, seeing as how our experience of Uruguayan wines was, you guessed it, limited to its signature Tannat grape. Tannat’s home is in south-west French, especially the Madiran AOC, and it’s a tough old sort. In unusual nominative determinism for grapes, it’s usually tannic and hard, frequently used in blends, and can be a touch on the industrial side. Nothing light and fruity. But this tasting wasn’t about Tannat, so I’ll say nothing further on the matter.

As the other half of the title suggests, Uruguay isn’t too well known on British shores. We’re all familiar with Argentina and Chile. At recent tastings, WinedUp has sampled both Brazilian and Paraguayan wines, but our knowledge of Uruguay is, or rather was, rudimentary at best. 

Mr Richards was an exceptional host, as you’d imagine from one of the wine world’s better-known personalities. He was refreshingly honest too, both about the wines themselves and their potential place in the wine world. The flight comprised of nine wines, from sparkling through whites to reds, with a breadth of winemaking styles that was fascinating in and of itself. 

The format for this masterclass was an interactive tasting, with some slides to help tell the stories behind each wine and winemaker. Our host would ask questions of the attendees and encouraged us to share our thoughts on each wine. In terms of audience reaction, the wines were well-received but not universally so. 

WinedUp’s overall conclusion on the tasting was that there were some wines that ranged mainly from fair to good, with a couple that were very good. Across the board there was the concern that, typical of emerging regions, there would be a struggle for many to find a market at a price-point that would make them interesting for consumers. 

In general, the wines we thought were most successful were the ones that stayed true to themselves, and their terroir expression, rather trying too hard or seeking to be imitations of more familiar regions but at higher prices than were viable. Tasting notes and thoughts below.

Familia Deicas, Castelar Extra Brut

Traditional method fizz was our aperitif. A nice nose, decent bit of fruit. Slightly sharp, citrus zest in the mouth. Reminded me of Cava on the palate. Price of around £15 put it at the higher end of the likes of Cava and Prosecco that are its logical comparatives, but it’s too expensive on a like-for-like basis. That same price will get you a better own label Champagne, better Cremant from elsewhere in France, better Sekt from Germany, and so on. Perfectly pleasant and drinkable but tough to know where it will find its niche unless discounted heavily from the current level.

Vinedo de los Vientos, Estival 2017

A blend of 60% Aromatic Traminer, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Moscato Bianco. Aromatic Traminer is known to us in Europe as Gewurtztraminer, combined with the well-known Chardonnay and one of the many esoteric Muscat varieties out there. The wine itself is something of a curate’s egg. As you’d expect from traminer, it had a very aromatic, open nose. Too flowery in taste for me but not bad. Balance is good. Touch of creaminess that needed a bit more-of-the-same to round it out.

Vina Progreso, Reserva Viognier 2019

An interesting wine, deliberately picked early, bottled early and drank early. Decisions which, for me, were all wrong. The nose is lovely but clearly far too young. Sharp, savoury undernotes. The oak needs to soften and integrate. Very green, also unsurprisingly. You could tell that there was some quality here, both in fruit and winemaking, but the attempt to do something different didn’t work, in our opinion. The same ingredients, assembled in a more conventional fashion and with both some lighter-but-longer oak aging and more bottle age, could have produced something better and good.

Bouza, Albarino 2018

As Albarino lovers, we were very interested to sample this. For me, it didn’t disappoint but for Meg, it did a little bit. Glorious stone fruit nose. Oak fermented, which added some creaminess compared to its Galician cousins. Not as fresh as Bierzo Albarino, unsurprisingly bearing in mind soil and climate differences, but fuller and richer. I thought this got better when I revisited it with more time in the glass and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

De Lucca, Marsanne Reserve 2017

We are also big drinkers of Rhone white wines, and Aussie Marsanne, so we were looking forward to this too. We were pleased with the result. Power on the nose, with a bit of acidity and alcohol heat coming through. Would probably have picked it out as a Marsanne, with typical honey and yellow/tropical fruit traits coming through. Still maintained its freshness.

Pisano, Rio de los Pajaros Reserve Pinot Noir 2017

I’ve been mainly pleased with Chilean Pinot, and displeased with Argentinian examples, so I was curious to see how Uruguay would fare with arguably one of the toughest grapes to grow well. The wine was pleasingly idiosyncratic and definitely not a New World fruit bomb. On the savoury end of the spectrum on the nose. Ditto in the mouth; more Germanic in nature rather than Burgundy or NZ. Earthy with nice fruits. I felt like I’d like some cheese as accompaniment. Spicy too, possibly a shade too much, but showing some classic Pinot Noir “iron fist in velvet glove” characteristics.

Bracco Bosca, Gran Ombu Cabernet Franc 2017

Big, violet nose, dark fruits and good backbone. Clear Cabernet Franc typicity. Tannic, structured and powerful. Fruit is a bit hidden for now. Later on it would open up and more earthiness would come through. Improved in the glass, the fruit poked its nose out, and it would definitely benefit from some bottle age. A lot to like here and I’ll be interested to see how other producers get on with Cabernet Franc in Uruguay as there are some encouraging signs here.

Familia Traversa, Noble Alianza 2017

A blend of 50% Tannat, 30% Marselan and 20% Merlot. It’s only fitting that the final two wines featured Tannat but in blends rather than single varietal ones. Just as I prefer Argentinian Malbec as a blending grape as opposed to a varietal one, I think that Tannat’s future is better as a blend with varieties that can both soften (in this case with Marselan) and flesh out (in this case with Merlot). The wine itself has a Malbec-esque nose, violets and power. Lush mouthfeel, soft and velvety. Savoury red/black fruits. Vanilla from the oak. A very nice wine that will get better.

Garzon, Balasto 2016

The final wine was a blend of 45% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot and 12% Marsalan. Oaky on the nose and smooth. Tannin on the mid-palette. Grippy. Needs to soften but savoury, big, with red and black fruit. The structure and balance are definitely there. Needs another 5+ years to come together and then it will be very good.

In Conclusion

Overall, an enjoyable tasting with a very informative, genial host in Peter Richards. If you have the opportunity to taste some Uruguayan wines, then you should. If you see any in shops, I’d recommend keeping an eye out for Albarino or Marsanne on the whites and Tannat in a blend or Cabernet Franc for the reds. If you taste any, let us know what you think!

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