Uruguay is sometimes called "the New Zealand of South America," a complimentary allusion to its peaceful democracy, strong agricultural economy and highly literate population in a relatively small place.
And like New Zealand, unfortunately, too many people in other parts of the world aren't completely clear on just exactly where it is.
From the wine lover's standpoint, it's useful to know about Uruguay because - very much as New Zealand was just a few years ago - it's the source of some very interesting wines that are just on the brink of being discovered by a wider public.
Analogies only go so far, of course: This pie-shaped country about the size of Washington State, tucked between much larger Brazil and Argentina on South America's South Atlantic coast, owes its cultural and linguistic heritage to Spain, not England. Costa Rica might be a better comparison than the land of the Kiwis.
And like most South American nations, Uruguay's political history is spotted with flirtations with violent revolution and military dictatorship, a condition that prevailed from the 1970s until 1985. But for the past 20 years, its citizens have enjoyed peace and freedom with an educated workforce that boasts a 98 percent literacy rate.
The country's wine heritage goes back much farther than that. Spanish immigrants, and a later wave of Italians, brought the grapevine some 250 years ago, and viticulture thrived in its temperate if somewhat unpredictable climate. (Far from the Andes, Uruguay's rolling farmland is more akin to France or Spain than Argentina.) One of the main growing areas, Salto (the source of today's wine) is located well inland, near the Rio de la Plata, which forms the boundary between Uruguay and Argentina.
Still a niche player in the world of wine, Uruguay boasts some 300 wineries, but most of them are very small and produce no exports. The entire country has fewer than 25,000 acres in vines, about 1/20 the vineyard land of neighboring Argentina.
Since late in the 19th Century, moreover, Uruguay's wine industry has chosen an intriguing if less well-traveled path: In 1874, a French Basque immigrant named Harriague imported grapevine cuttings of the obscure French variety called Tannat ("Tah-naht.") This red grape, usually grown only in Madiran, a small wine region in Southwestern France, produces dark, dense red wines of extremely tannic nature (the name "Tannat" is said to stem directly from "tannin"), so harsh and unyielding that they often require years of aging to become drinkable.
Tannat proved an excellent match for the Salto soil and climate, and it has become Uruguay's leading variety, as closely associated with the place as Sauvignon Blanc has become the tradmark variety for New Zealand. In its importer's memory, Uruguayan vintners sometimes call the Tannat grape "Harriague."
For those of us who enjoy adding offbeat regions and grapes to our wine-tasting "life lists," Uruguayan wine has been painfully difficult to find. So I was delighted to discover a Tannat from H. Stagnari, one of the country's most respected small producers, turn up recently at a local retail shop. It's a well-made if somewhat challenging wine, balanced and a bit rustic, so fiercely tannic that it takes a bit of effort to coax it out; but it's worth that effort if you like big, interesting reds.
FACTS ABOUT URUGUAY:
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H. Stagnari 2000 Salto Tannat Viejo ($16)
This is a very dark reddish-purple wine, black and dense as velvet in the glass. Plums and blueberries and herbal notes show in a surprisingly complex aroma, with a slight, pleasant whiff of "barnyard." Plummy fruit and lemony acidity appear in balance on the palate, but the primary impact comes from a heavy curtain of smooth tannins, not harsh or scratchy but dominating, a wall of gentle but persistent astringency that surrounds the fruit. In the absence of cellar time, this is a wine that (like its French cousin Madiran) demands decanting with vigorous aeration plus time to open up in the glass, whereupon its tannins don't fade entirely but give way to more open dark fruit and Rhone-like "raw meat." This wine is from Uruguay in South America. Salto is the region and Tannat is the grape; Uruguayan wine labels sometimes style it "Tannat Viejo," simply translating as "old" or maybe "traditional" Tannat. U.S. importer: Table 31 Imports, Dillon, Colo. (May 4, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: The classic accompaniment to seriously tannic young red wines is rare beef, and just-seared T-bones worked just fine. This is also culturally appropriate, since "Asado" (grilled meat) is as much a part of Uruguayan cookery as it is in Argentina.
VALUE: I can't characterize this mid-teens price as "cheap," but it was certainly within the range I'm willing to invest for a novel-wine adventure; and the wine strikes me as a quality match for a similarly priced Madiran.
WHEN TO DRINK: I have no long-term (or short-term) experience with cellaring Uruguayan Tannat, but it seems reasonable to assume that - like Madiran - it needs 10 years aging and can take 20 or more.
WEB LINK: Stagnari's English-language Website starts here:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: As a small, niche producer, Stagnari's wines are not going to be easy to find. Wine-Searcher.com shows only sources in Europe (Belgium and Germany) in its databases,
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Wednesday, May 5, 2004