While South Africa battles it out against Mexico today in the World Cup, the wine world's powerhouse, France, goes up against the tiny South American country of Uruguay. Two-time World Cup winners, the Uruguayans are considered the underdogs in today's game. But when it comes to wine I think they've got the French beat on one account: Tannat.
Uruguay's winegrowing history is relatively short - having been introduced by the Basques in the late 1800s - though according to the Oxford Companion to Wine their per person wine consumption is rivaled in South America only by the Argentines. In the past 20 years, Uruguayan viticulture has vastly improved as less successful hybrid grapes have been switched over to international varieties including Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, the aforementioned Tannat, which is sometimes called Harriague.
Tannat is a thick-skinned red grape variety that can out-Nebbiolo Nebbiolo in the mouth-puckering tannin category. Its heretofore best known iterations have been southwest France's Madirans and Irouleguys, and since most people are familiar with neither of these, well...you get the point. Uruguayan Tannat is different, though. In the unoaked, low-alcohol and extremely affordable 2008 Don Pascual "Pueblo del Sol" Tannat ($7.99) pictured at left, the variety comes across fresh and juicy, with raspberry and strawberry fruit notes so pure you can almost feel the tiny hairs on the berries tickling your tongue. This is an incredibly easy-drinking, everyday wine that will make you root for the underdogs today, if you weren't already.
The 2007 Don Pascual "Roble" Tannat ($16.99) is a much more serious wine - think Camus compared to the Pueblo Sol's Tao of Pooh - with deep Mission fig notes, hints of tar, espresso bean and Flavor King pluot. It has a richer tannin profile, but it doesn't overwhelm the wine, and the acidity is still fresh and food friendly.
Finally, we have the 2007 Bodega Bouza Tannat ($16.99), which isn't as brooding as the Roble but is more substantive than the Pueblo Sol. Pomegranate and boysenberry fruit dominate, with hints of vanilla from its time in French and American oak. Fotunately the oak treatment didn't add to the wine's tannic structure, instead it smoothed out the Tannat's rougher edges, giving this a lovely, sultry texture. Save this baby for the steaks you grill when Uruguay plays South Africa on June 16th.