Tannat Is the Ultimate Big Red Wine for Steak
At celebrity chef Francis Mallmann’s personal retreat in Uruguay, sausages and sweetbreads were sizzling outdoors on his rustic parrilla, a grill over an open wood fire. I heaped my plate. Later, when he passed the second course, a platter of short ribs and thick rib-eye steaks dripping with juice, I couldn’t resist even more meat.
The table was littered with open bottles, but the best wine with all that grass-fed beef was a rich, spicy Uruguayan red made from the Tannat grape by a new winery, Bodega Garzón. I savored the combo as I tried to pick out constellations from a star-studded sky while the sky darkened over green hills with granite outcroppings.
Meat is a big deal in Uruguay, as I discovered during a recent week of winery visits in this under-the-radar South American grape and gaucho haven. (Picture a population of 12 million cows, three times the size of a citizenry that consumes more beef per capita than anywhere on the planet but neighboring Argentina.)
Naturally, there’s a huge need for a serious steak red, which where Tannat comes in. What makes these reds as meat-friendly as wines can get is their high level of tannin, which comes from the grape’s extra-thick skin and multiple seeds. (Tannin, Tannat, get it?)
A scientist once explained it to me this way: When you drink and chew, tannin molecules bond with and soften the protein in steaks. They also soften the fat, releasing the meat’s flavor and mellowing the wine’s tannin. Trust me, this works. I had daily meat-centric opportunities to judge how well.
Early immigrants to Uruguay from Spain and Italy brought their native grapes such as Sangiovese. A Basque immigrant arrived later, in 1870, with Tannat vines from the grape’s home in the Western Pyrenees of France. These helped kick-start the country’s wine business of producing rustic reds. (Tannat goes back to the 13th century in the French town of Madiran, where it’s still the main grape variety, making fierce, powerful wines.) In the last 15 years, a few longtime Uruguayan producers and a wave of new boutique wineries have made a big push toward quality, raising the country’s prospects for recognition in the world vino marketplace.
A few basic facts: Today, Uruguay has about 300 wineries, but only about 40 are making export-quality fine wine. Just about all of these are clustered in four main regions in the south of the country, not far from the coast (and its 300 miles of beaches), with the majority in Canelones, which surrounds the country’s capital, Montevideo. We’re not talking about a lot of wine; the 68 million cases or so that Uruguay produces in a year is less than the amount made by Chile’s Concha y Toro group.
More than 25 percent of the country’s 22,000 acres of vineyards produce Tannat. It’s the most widely planted varietal, and just about every vintner makes one. They’re hoping that this signature grape will sprinkle the same kind of economic fairy dust on their country that popular Malbec has upon Argentina’s wine industry. (Tannats are now trickling into the U.S. and U.K. See my picks of the best, below.)
Taming the Tannin
To my palate, Tannat wins out over Malbec. Both have a similarly smooth power and broad-shouldered character, but the best Tannats also come with a rich complex of berry, spice, and dark, earthy-stony flavors perked up by juicy acidity.
The problem with the grape for winemakers is how to tame all that tannin. You want enough to give structure and steak-friendliness, but too much assaults your mouth with dark, puckery bitterness. That’s why many wineries, such as top new boutique Alto de la Ballena, often blend Tannat with such other grapes as Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah. Others try to soften it with oak aging, though too much oak adds other aggressive flavors like raw wood, vanilla, and bitter coffee.
Thanks to new viticultural research, the best all-Tannat wines are getting pretty exciting.
At Bodegas Pisano, in the region near Montevideo where most of the wineries are located, Daniel Pisano explained it over a plate of beef: “The secret of Tannat is low yields so the seeds ripen enough.” Picking later helps, too.
Over more beef elsewhere, I hear about gentle maceration, before and during fermentation, so the juice absorbs less tannin from the grape skins.
Some wineries are betting that the granite soils and hillsides of new area Maldonado, about an hour from glitzy beach resort Punta del Este, will become the top vineyard spots. Tannats from there seem to have a distinctive mineral taste.
At Bodega Garzón, billionaire owner Alejandro Bulgheroni is pouring millions into his massive winery building, which incorporates huge granite boulders. No expense has been spared in the quest to produce elegant wines, including investing in concrete fermenting tanks that are copies of those at the great Bordeaux château, Cheval Blanc. Why? The naturally porous material allows air to enter, creating rounder wines without adding the oaky flavors of new wood barrels. Garzón’s first vintage was 2011.
When the winery opens to visitors early in 2016, it will include a Francis Mallmann restaurant with an open fire pit for grilling meat—and plenty of Tannat on the wine list. That’s reason enough to go.
Top Tannats to Try
Picks are 100-percent Tannat, unless otherwise noted. Given limited exports of Uruguayan wines, use a site like Wine Searcher to find a bottle near you.
2010 Alto de la Ballena Reserva Tannat-Viognier ($26)
This exotic blend of Tannat and 15 percent fragrant Viognier from a tiny, new winery has a distinctive and delicious earthy quality. altodelaballena.com
2012 Artesana Tannat ($16)
A small American-owned winery makes this lively, full-bodied red, which has notes of blackberries. artesanawinery.com
2013 Bodega Bouza Monte Vide Eu ($60)
Dark ruby-colored, this smooth blend of 55 percent Tannat, 23 percent Merlot, and 22 percent Tempranillo from another new boutique winery has Cassis and red fruit flavors and a savory taste of earth and rocks. bodegabouza.com
2008 Bodegas Carrau Amat Tannat ($30)
One of the best Tannats I tasted, made by one of Uruguay’s pioneering family wineries, it's powerful, plushy, and plummy, with aromas of rose petals, mint, and herbs. bodegascarrau.com
2013 Bodegas Carrau Tannat de Reserva ($18)
A taste of ripe plums and violets, combined with fine silky-textured tannins, add up to a great value. bodegascarrau.com
2013 Familia Deicas Massimo Deicas Tannat ($60)
Made to emphasize freshness, as well as depth and concentration, this 100-percent Tannat shows off a new, brighter style advocated by U.S. consultant Paul Hobbs. familiadeicas.com
2013 De Lucca Tannat Reserve ($16)
Dark, rich, intense, this un-oaked wine was one of the best 100 percent Tannats I tasted, with wonderful floral aromas and more elegance than most. Owner Reinaldo de Lucca is a leader in Uruguayan viticulture. deluccawines.com
2013 Bodega Garzón Tannat ($17)
Dark fruit, bitter chocolate flavors, and surprising sophistication for the price distinguish this smooth-textured wine. blendsinc.com
2009 Bodega Pisano Tannat ($15)
A soft, juicy, happy wine, this is the fruity, easy drinking style of an all-Tannat wine. pisanowines.com
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