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Tannat, el sabor nacional de Uruguay

Barrels of Uruguayan Tannat, aging in the cellar of Bodega Juanico.

South American wines have made great headway in the United States. And for good reason. When it comes to price and quality, you really can't go wrong with a Chilean Cabernet or an Argentinean Malbec.

South America also harbors some rather eccentric wines that are fun to drink if only because of their colorful histories. Have you ever heard of Tannat? It's widely considered to be the national grape of Uruguay. Once grown exclusively in the Madiran region of southwest France, Tannat was brought to Uruguay by a French Basque immigrant, Pascal Harriague, in the 1870s. One devastating aphid plague and two world wars later, the grape is a footnote in European history. In Uruguay, however, it has become centerpiece of a small but intense wine industry, making up 25 percent of the country's vineyards.

This red grape varietal is named after its most prominent feature, a high tannin content. Tannins are what give red wines their structure and allow them to age well. The trade-off is that tannins also give young wines pucker power, a quality that in the extreme can render the wine undrinkable (and unsaleable) for several years. In Uruguay, they say that their Tannat is softer than the Tannat of Madiran, thus allowing them to create 100-percent Tannat wines that can be drunk young.

Tannat is not easy to find in the States. Uruguay ships only a tiny percentage of its production overseas. And bottles of Madiran represent a negligible portion of France's wine exports. But keep your eyes open. Some enthusiastic Tannat growers in Virginia (whose climate closely resembles Uruguay's) and California are petitioning the Feds to add the grape to the list of approved varietals. If that happens, a market could be born. Never say never. After all, five years ago, how many people knew about Pinot Noir?

Read more about Uruguay and Tannat at the 30-Second Wine Advisor.

Next wine post: Carmenere from Chile (have to go buy some first!)

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In Argentina, the best Tannat is from Cayafate, Salta province. My favourite is Quara Tannat. Excellent! And isn't expensive; in local supermarkets costs less than 4 dollars.
I just came back from a weeklong trip to Uruguay, a most amazing country. I visited the Pisano winery in Progreso, about 40 minutes outside Montevideo. They make incredible wines in general, and their Tannat is first-rate. Look for it in your local fine wine shop. They also make a really interesting dessert wine from Tannat called EtXe Oneko, but it may be difficult to find outside of Uruguay.
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