Hello everybody and welcome to the wine
cast. In this cast I’m experimenting with a slightly different format in which I’m
combining a wine region and a grape varietal into one cast. The idea for
trying things this way came at the request of a viewer who wanted me to
talk about either Uruguay or Tannat, and I figured, “Hey why not both?” After all, the
two are closely associated and it’s hard to talk about one without the other, so
let’s give it a try. Uruguay has a relatively short history
as a viticultural nation with commercial wine production, as opposed to earlier
communion wine production by Spanish missionaries and church officials, not
beginning there in earnest until the late 1800’s thanks to a wave of
immigration that took place a few decades after independence and a
subsequent civil war. Immigration was especially heavy from Italy and from
Spain as well as from the Basque Country on both the Spanish and French sides of
the Pyrenees Mountains, and these immigrants brought grape vines with them
and began planting and then vinifying the fruit. In spite of the presence of
these immigrant cultivars, for most of the following century the Uruguayan wine
industry didn’t focus on Vitis vinifera but on American native varieties,
especially from the Vitis labrusca species, and on hybrids that started out
their careers in Uruguay as a solution to Phylloxera and for which local
palates soon developed a taste. Things began to change in the 1990’s, though, with
a big impetus for change coming in 1991 with the creation of the Mercosur
regional free-trade bloc that involved a number of South American countries
including Uruguay. With the lowering of trade barriers
Uruguayan wines would now have to compete on a more even footing with
quality of vinifera wines from large local players like Chile, and members of
the wine industry had a nagging suspicion that unless they stepped up
their quality game the competition wouldn’t be resolved in Uruguay’s favor. So,
starting in the 90’s the emphasis in Uruguay shifted away from hybrids and, to
a lesser extent, American native grapes and onto Vitis vinifera and quality
production as the road to success. This strategy paid off and currently Uruguay
is the fourth largest wine producer in South America behind Chile, Argentina and
Brazil. As of 2016 about 6700 hectares, or 16,000 acres, are under vine and producing grapes. While that’s a pretty modest size,
for comparison’s sake California’s Napa Valley has about 44,000 acres planted and
Chile, South America’s top-dog producer, about 315,000,
it’s worth noting that 96% of that area is devoted to wine
grapes as opposed to table or juice grapes and the number of total hectares
for wine production has been growing steadily. Uruguay is mainly a red
producer with 78% of planted wine grapes representing red varietals. Uruguay’s
commitment to red production has been a boon for itself economically, and its
major export market is Brazil, a country that, though it makes more wine overall
than Uruguay does, struggles to make red wines in its particularly hot and humid
climate. A much smaller amount of wine than what goes to Brazi, less than 10%, in fact, goes to the number two market, the countries of Belgium and
Luxembourg that, for some reason, my source lumped together and about the
same amount goes to the United States with smaller quantities to the Russian
Federation, Poland and Mexico among about 40 other countries. In Uruguay, the names
of wine regions correspond to the names of the departamentos or departments,
comparable to states in the U.S., that the country is organized into. There are
19 of these departments in Uruguay, with vineyards and 15 of them, but these
vineyards aren’t evenly distributed and 91% of plantings can be found taking
advantage of the cooler weather near the southern coast in the department’s of
Canelones, Montevideo, Colonia and San José. Uruguay’s vineyard land is also
heavily subdivided and parceled with a strong tradition of small vineyard
ownership dating back to the wave of immigration in the 1800’s, and currently
around 74% of vineyards in the country are parcels that are 5 hectaresm
that’s about 12 acres, or smaller. Uruguay uses a straightforward, two-tiered
system for classifying it’s grape wines with the top tier, the Vino de Calidad
Preferente, or Wine of Special Quality tier, abbreviated VCP,
representing the tier for quality wines and roughly correlating to the PDO level
of the European Union wine classification scheme.
Wines made at this level can only be made from vinifera grapes, so no native
varieties or hybrids, and have various minimum requirements, like minimum
alcohol by volume, for example, that they have to meet. In what appears to be an
effort to link VCP wines to formats perceived to represent quality wines,
they cannot, by law, be sold in sizes larger than 750 milliliters nor can they
be sold in containers made from anything other than glass. VCP wine usually
accounts for somewhere between 7 to 12% of total wine production, with the
considerable slack taken up by the tier below, the Vino Común, VC, or Common Wine tier. Here the wines can be vinified not only from vinifera but from Vitis labrusca grapes, an American native species as well, with the grapes from the species
most commonly being 2 red grapes, Frutilla, also known in the U.S. as Isabella and
Concord. VC wines can be sold in any size format and in plastic or cardboard
containers as well as glass. In fact, a lot of wine made at this tier is
inexpensive Rosé, often sold in large jug or, more recently, box formats and
made from Muscat Hamburg, a widely planted vinifera grape that does not
figure as prominently at the quality level of production. Regulations
governing wine production and labeling are administered in Uruguay by INAVI, the
Instituto Nacional de Viniviticultura, or the National Institute of Wine and
Viticulture, and according to INAVI’s own documentation Uruguay follows an 85%
rule for vintage and varietal labeling for its VCP wines; so, if there’s a
varietal designation on the wine 85% of the wine must be
that varietal, and if there’s a vintage date 85% must have come from the
named year. I wasn’t able to find, despite much searching, a specific percentage
requirement connected to using a geographic designation on the label but
one English-language source I found claimed he’d spoken to industry
professionals in Uruguay who told him that the requirement to use a
geographical indication more specific than the whole country, that is, the name
of one of the departments that double as wine regions, is 100%. I also wasn’t
able to find any specific requirements for vintage and varietal labeling for
VC wines and the impression that I get is that this tier is a catch-all for
anything that didn’t qualify for the VCP tier provided that the wine was made from
vinifera or labrusca and not from hybrid grapes. And speaking of labels, I should
note that on at least three bottles of Uruguayan wine that I’ve had, all very
good, I couldn’t find a VCP or other quality
level designation no matter how hard I looked despite INAVI’s very clear
statement that such a designation should be printed in letters that are “visible
legible and indelible” as well as no smaller than six millimeters. I’ve seen
VCP designations on other Uruguayan wines, so I don’t know what’s going on here. Did
I miss it? Is it under my thumb? As far as I can tell, the designation on the label
is supposed to be mandatory so go fig and let me know in the comments if you know what’s going on or if I missed something. Finally, as far as grapes go, the big dog
in Uruguay is Tannat, that makes up a healthy 26% of vines planted and about
as much of total wine produced. The number two grape, Muscat Hamburg, or Black Muscat, features more prominently in VC level production than quality production.
Ugni Blanc, also known as Trebbiano in Italy, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Sauv
Blanc, Marselan, a Grenache and Cab Sauv cross that turns up in the wines of
Southwest France, and Chardonnay round out the top nine. There’re 60 some
varietals, both red and white, grown in Uruguay but the top four of them, from Tannat to Merlot, make up 66% of plantings and 75% of production. Almost all of
these permitted grapes are vinifera along with some Frutilla/Isabella,
Concord and maybe a stray labrusca vine here there. As of 2007, hybrids and non-labrusca native grapes are not legal for vinification into wine in Uruguay
and hybrid and non-labrusca vines have been undergoing aggressive eradication
since then. I should say a little more about Tannat which has become not only Uruguay’s most planted grape but its signature grape as well. Tannat has its
origins in the southwest of France, so there’s that Basque connection again, and,
indeed, it made its way to Uruguay during a wave of Basque immigration in the late
1800’s with the first plantings transported by a Basque gentleman from
Southwest France, Pascual Harriague. Harriague’s role in the migration of
this grape was significant enough and well enough
known for his name to become a synonym for the grape in Uruguay. Harriague’s
decision to bring cuttings to Uruguay was fortunate both for Uruguay and for
Tannat, since there’s general agreement that the warmer Uruguayan climate, along
with some other terroir factors, does the grape some favors, and, like Malbec in
Argentina and Sauv Blanc in New Zealand, this grape was soon expressing in more
interesting ways in the New World than it was in the Old. Though it’s done
well for itself in Uruguay, and plantings there are increasing, it’s still more
widely planted in France where it’s best known as the main grape in Madiran
AOC wines. What role does it play in Madiran wines? Well, funny you should ask because I had a dickens of a time figuring out what the required minimum percentage of Tannat was in this AOC, and after consulting no fewer than four sources
couldn’t find two of them that agreed exactly. So, I decided to go with the
information at legifrance, the organization in France officially
responsible for publishing legislation, including legislation related to wine,
and according to them, while 40 to 80% of vineyard acreage in Madiran must be made up of Tannat, the actual blend in the bottle must contain a
minimum of 50% Tannat. There’s no maximum amount that the blend can contain, and
there are a number of bottlings in Madiran, often considered top quality,
that are 100% Tannat. If it’s not a hundred percent what takes up the slack?
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a local grape, Fer Servadou. How does Tannat express as a varietal? It’s a big wine with lots of red and black fruit
aromas and flavors and lots of tannin, which may be how it got its name. This is
usually a big brash wine the benefits from some time to age, but Uruguayan
Tannats are usually described as softer and maybe a little bit more elegant than
their French cousins, and their fruit expression drifts more solidly toward
the blackberry and plum end of things. Like I said, this wine can be very tannic,
making it a challenge to drink when young, and in 1991 a significant
technological step was taken toward taming those tannins when Patrick Ducournau, a winemaker in Madiran, pioneered a process called micro-oxygenation or, in French, micro-bullage. Wines that are high in tannin are often
aged in barrel for extended periods of time so that the barrels will control
oxygen exposure to the wine, allowing the wine’s tannins to soften while keeping
the wine from oxidizing due to overexposure to air. This process can
take quite a while, though, and micro -oxygenation speeds it up by introducing
tiny bubbles of oxygen to the wine through a porous piece of ceramic
while it’s in a tank. This process is more aggressive and thoroughgoing in
exposing the wine to oxygen than barrel-aging is, though it’s still
restrained enough to keep it from oxidizing. Though it has its critics, it
also has many proponents and it’s currently used on a wide number of high-tannin wines, like some highly extracted Bordeaux, for example, and not just on Tannat. Thanks for joining me for another wine cast. I hope this cast was a
successful introduction to Uruguay as a wine region and also left you with some
useful knowledge about its signature grape. At the very least, I hope you’ll be
more comfortable with and willing to check out Uruguayan wine, or, as the
locals call it, vino Uruguayo. Thanks as always to all of my viewers,
and if you haven’t subscribed yet, I hope you will. Please keep the likes, comments,
questions and requests coming, both here and on Instagram at unknownwinecasterdrinkswine. I’m your host the Unknown Winecaster, and I’m out; enjoy the grape.
but always enjoy it responsibly.