Wine enthusiasts are always seeking out new discoveries. Some locals are looking to Uruguay.
At Pearl Wine Company, owner Leora Madden offers an Uruguayan tannat, the nation's signature grape.
"When you look at the Southern hemisphere as a whole, it's a treasure trove of gorgeous wine and remarkable values," Madden says. "Now that Uruguay has started exporting more of [its] wine, we are able to see the beauty and the hard work that's coming out of that region. Varietals like tannat are displaying beautiful notes at an incredibly reasonable price."
Situated adjacent to northern Argentina, Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America, but its wines are receiving renewed attention from oenophiles.
Wine grapes have been grown in Uruguay for more than 250 years, so this is not a new development. While Argentina has become known for malbec and Chile for carmenere, in Uruguay, the primary wine grape and the focus of the nation's wine industry is tannat.
The first tannat vines arrived in Uruguay from Basque country, along with Spanish and French settlers, in the middle 1800s. As in neighboring wine-producing countries, Uruguay still has vine stock directly descended from the original plantings. The fruit, while not plentiful, offers fully realized character and structure.
In Uruguay, tannat's expression from older vines is more elegant, softer and more complex than tannat grown in France and Spain. The newer vines produce bolder, richer fruit that has lower acidity but more sugar, which translates into higher alcohol levels. Tannat is often blended with merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon in wines reminiscent of bottlings from California and Australia.
The flavor of Uruguyan tannat strays more into the blueberry range as opposed to Spanish and French tannats' raspberry character. That makes it likely that Uruguayan tannat will be used in port-like spirits.
The nation's wine-producing regions are located in the south in the departments of Canelones, Montevideo and San Jose. The production of wine is just now becoming robust enough to support steady exporting, and its most promising market is the largest wine-consuming nation on earth: the United States.
In New Orleans, Vino Wholesale chose to represent wines from Bodega Marichal, a fourth-generation Uruguayan estate. Chef John Besh's Restaurant August has added the vintner to its wine list.
"I think people are always looking for new regions with interesting wines at good prices," says August sommelier Erin White. "The Marichal tannat was just that for me. It is on the lean side and doesn't offer gobs of fruit the way California or Australia does."
"I think it needs to be directed to people that like Spanish tempranillo," she adds. "It has sandalwood and tobacco (flavors) and reminds me a bit of a Bordeaux from Graves, all lean muscle, no fat. I would buy other wines from Uruguay ... and would try to use them in a pairing on the tasting menu so that we can explain the style and showcase it with the right flavors."
At Pearl Wine, customers are looking for the next thing from Uruguay.
"I have customers coming in asking when I can get a Uruguayan sauvignon blanc in the shop," Madden adds. "When Marichal owner and winemaker Juan Andres Marichal comes here this month, I'm going to ask him if he makes one."
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