By Rose Murray Brown Published in The Scotsman 28 July 2017
This week’s column is inspired by an unusual white wine I discovered on Sainsbury’s shelves - made from the popular Spanish Albarino grape – but grown in - Uruguay.
What surprised me was that it was not only unusual to see Albarino from outside Spain – although there are good examples from northern Portugal and New Zealand - but Uruguay exports so few wines (just 5% of its production) and those are mainly reds.
Colinas de Uruguay Albarino is a vibrant aromatic white made by Bodegas Garzon, an impressive modern winery in Maldonado set up by Alejandro Bulgheroni in 1999. Uruguay’s wine industry is tiny in comparison to its neighbour Argentina – just 9,000 hectares – and it is dominated by small to medium sized family-owned wineries like Garzon, Bouza, Pisano, Juanico, Ballena and Pizzorno.
Uruguay’s wine industry began in 1870, set up by immigrants from Europe’s Basque country, which is of course the homeland of Albarino on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. So it is not so surprising that wineries here have chosen to plant this Spanish grape in their coastal vineyards.
Albarino has an interesting combination of pungent aromas, fresh natural acidity, thick skins and high extract. The examples I have tasted from Galicia in Spain are sleeker and crisper, but in Uruguay’s warmer climate Albarino seems to work well giving a very aromatic and deliciously spicy full bodied white, with enough acidity to keep it fresh so it still works well as an aperitif and with seafood.
Ninety percent of Uruguay’s vineyards hug the southern coast, west and east of Montevideo, which are cooled by the Antartic currents in the southern Atlantic. Garzon’s Albarino vineyard benefits from this maritime climate, just 11 miles from the ocean on gently rolling hills east of the capital Montevideo. It is wetter and more humid here than in neighbouring Argentina across the Rio de la Plata, but not as wet as in Spain’s Galicia.
Basque immigrants in Uruguay also brought another interesting grape from their homeland across the Atlantic in 1870, the red Tannat grape. This French grape originates from the foothills of the Pyrenees in south west France - and is currently popular in Madiran, St Mont and the Basque region of Irouleguy. The Uruguayans have taken Tannat to heart - it is now the most widely planted variety in Uruguay with nearly 2,000 hectares – almost as much as is planted in France.
Tannat – as its name suggests - is a tough variety with a fair amount of tannin – and it is hard to make into approachable styles – but (like Malbec in Argentina) it works well in Uruguay giving plumper more velvety styles which can be drunk in their youth – in comparison to France’s Madiran wines made from Tannat which can be austere and take decades to soften and mature.
You might hear the name Harriague in Uruguay – this is the old name for Tannat from its pioneer Frenchman Pascal Harriague who first brought this variety from his Basque homeland in the late 19th century. The original Tannat clones became infected by viruses and have now been replaced with new imported clones from France – although the Pisano family still have old vine Harriague in their vineyards which they make into an unusual Tannat liqueur.
Our two reds this week show two sides of Uruguayan Tannat. One is 100% varietal Tannat, the other is a blend with the popular Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Franc and Merlot. My preference was for the juicier smoother blend softened with Merlot made by another new Uruguayan winery Ballena, set up recently by newcomers Paula Pivel and Alvaro Lorenzo close to the Uruguay’s most popular tourist seaside resort of Punta del Este.
COLINAS DE URUGUAY ALBARINO 2016 STAR VALUE
A mix of orange peel, peach and white flowers in aroma, with mouthfilling ripe citric fruits and a spicy hint - shows potential for Albarino in South America. Named ‘colinas’ after the rolling hills of Maldonado.
PISANO CISPLATINO TANNAT 2015
(£9.50 Marks & Spencer)
A varietal (100%) Tannat made by an older established winery, Pisano. Gabriel Pisano makes this juicy smoky herby red which reminds me of southern French Madiran, but with extra plummy weight.
ALTO DE LA BALLENA TANNAT MERLOT CABERNET FRANC 2009
(£14.99 Rude Wines www.rudewines.co.uk)
Attractive blend of 50% Tannat, with 35% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc – which has benefitted from bottle age. Upfront ripe plummy fruits on aroma and palate with soft fine tannins – a good Tannat blend made by Paula Pivel and Alvaro Lorenzo in the Sierra de la Ballena hills – named after the whales you can view from these coastal vineyards.
Celebrate Edinburgh Festival in style at Rose’s Champagne Masterclass in Edinburgh Thursday 24 August £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com