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Uruguayan wines about to make grand entrance

By Stephen Quinn | China Daily | Updated: 2011-12-04 17:23

Wines from Uruguay are not available in the Chinese mainland, but when they are, prepare to be impressed. A tasting of wines in Hong Kong recently suggests Uruguay is ready to emerge onto the world stage.

Uruguay's signature grape variety is tannat. Winemakers are hoping consumers will come to connect tannat with Uruguay in the same way they associate malbec with Argentina or carmenere with Chile.

Uruguay has about the same population as New Zealand - 3.4 million compared with about 4 million Kiwis - and it is appropriate to note the similarities between the nations.

Both countries have long coastlines and have a clean and green image. Both countries produce small amounts of high quality wine.

Interestingly, given its long coastline and the availability of fish, Uruguay consumes little white wine. As in China, red wine is much preferred. Red meat consumption in Uruguay is one of the highest in the world, at about 70 kg per person. This is appropriate because tannat needs to matched with big meats.

Beef and lamb from Uruguay are well regarded because animals graze outside all year round, rather than being fed corn in winter, as happens in the United States. Like New Zealand, Uruguay has a high regard for animal welfare.

It is a relatively flat country - the highest point is only 500 meters above sea level. Most vineyards are located in the hills north of the capital Montevideo, where the highest point is only about 220 meters.

Almost 40 percent of all wine is made from tannat. This variety originated in Basque-influenced regions of France. A Basque Frenchman, Pascal Harriague, is credited with introducing tannat to Uruguay in 1870. He was looking for a varietal that would thrive in the country's soil and climate. Today it is being blended with pinot noir and merlot, and more tannat is grown in Uruguay than in the country where the grapes originated.

Uruguayan tannats exhibit elegant and soft tannins with fruit flavors at the blackberry end of the spectrum. Vineyards have begun to distinguish between "old vines" descended from the original European cuttings and new clones. The newer vines tend to produce more powerful wines with higher levels of alcohol but less acidity and more complex fruit characteristics.

Uruguay has been exporting high-quality wine throughout Latin America and the United States since the early 1990s. The country has about 8,900 hectares of vineyards and perhaps 1,800 producers.

The tasting I attended involved 10 wines and there is insufficient space to talk about all of them. The tannats were intense and had spent extended periods in new oak. The whites - mostly sauvignon blanc and albarino - were crisp and fruity. The 2011 viognier I found unexciting, though it was young and immature.

The 2010 Garzon reserva tannat was dark cherry in color with elegant aromas and ripe tannins. The 2010 Cata Mayor pinot noir spent eight months in American oak and had long length and offered aromas of mushrooms and cherry. It was an impressive wine given this was only the second vintage.

The 2006 Pisano family Fabula late harvest, a dessert wine made from torrontes grapes, had wonderful acid and fruit balance and was almost amber in color. The first vintage was in 2003. This is a wine that will continue to improve as the vines get older.

The 2007 Licor de Tannat by Gimenez Mendez that ended the evening was a most unusual dessert wine. It was almost black in the glass with a funky, almost earthy nose, chewy tannins, and sweet blackberry flavors that lingered long after the wine was drunk.

These are all wines to seek out, though as of the time of writing Uruguayan winemakers had not found an outlet in the Chinese mainland.

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