I remember the first time I drank wine from Chile, in a previous century, when my college roommate and I discovered Chilean Chardonnay at a wine shop near our apartment. We were really excited because it seemed really new, different and cutting-edge — and because it was really cheap. We took it home, put it in the fridge and counted the minutes while it chilled.
When 5 o’clock rolled around, we grabbed the bottle, pulled the cork, filled two glasses, sipped, looked at each other and without saying a word, poured our glasses down the drain (followed by the rest of the bottle). Think about it: We were college students, we were poor, we had been known to drink wine coolers — the definition of desperation — and yet this Chilean Chardonnay was so hot, heavy and generally horrific that we poured an entire bottle down the drain. It was years before I dared trying Chilean wine again.
Chile’s wines have come a long way in the intervening decades — as we know — and much of what the country produces now is quite good. Why am I telling you this story? Because there may be a parallel in wines from Uruguay, which are just starting to appear in U.S. wine shops. In fact, their storyline may be somewhat better.
I’ve just tried two wines from Uruguay’s Pisano Winery and did not pour either one down the drain — despite the fact that I have a decent income now and don’t drink swill out of desperation.
Pisano Family Winery was established by Don Cesare Secundino Pisano in 1914, after he emigrated from Liguria in north-western Italy (near the French border), planted vineyards and produced his first wine in 1924. Still under family control, the wines are produced by three brothers — Daniel, Eduardo and Gustavo Pisano-Arretxea — from vineyards planted in classic French and Italian wine grapes including Tannat, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Viognier, Moscato and even a bit of the German grape Gewürztraminer. Grapes are hand-harvested and fermented mostly in stainless steel, with minimal use of oak and the wines are given six months of bottle aging before shipping.
Tucked between Argentina and Brazil, with a long Atlantic coastline, Uruguay offers some prime wine-growing real estate and Pisano’s vineyards sit near the high-altitude Rio de la Plata — giving them loads of sun plus cool Atlantic breezes, similar to what you’d find across the sea in Bordeaux. Winds blowing from the west, off the Andes Mountains, bring even cooler, low-humidity air. Because they’re in the southern hemisphere, harvesting runs from February to April before winter arrives in June. (It’s just bit of trivia to remember that a 2014-vintage wine from the southern hemisphere will be six months older than a 2014 wine from California or France.) Pisano produces roughly 200,000 bottles annually, ranging from full-bodied reds to sparkling whites, most of which currently are destined for the European market.
The majority of Pisano’s acreage is planted in Tannat, a red wine grape grown largely in southwest France to make Madiran — a wine not easily found in the states but one that’s as tasty and age-worthy as Bordeaux, so buy some if you find it. Tannat was first carried to Uruguay by Basque settlers and is now considered Uruguay’s “national grape” (sometimes called “Harriague”). Because of differing soil conditions and vinification methods, however, wines made from Tannat in Uruguay will not taste like Madiran from France. Uruguay’s wines are generally softer, less tannic and more prone to blackberry flavors. The wines are evolving, however, as Uruguayan winemakers clone Tannat to make sub-species producing sturdier, higher alcohol wines with less acidity and less-distinctive fruit flavors.
The Pisano wines I tried were their Rio de los Pajaros Reserve Tannat (2011) and their Rio de los Pajaros Reserve Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend (also 2011).
The Tannat poured a deep, dark burgundy color with almost a hint of brown — but clear and luminous, not cloudy. There was very little fruit in its aromas and more of a basic alcohol fragrance. The taste was more fruity, however, featuring black-cherry jam, prune and licorice with a bit of acidity up front and a soft, round finish. The tannins were very low. All these traits led me to believe I’d bought wine made from the original European Tannat vines, not the newer clones.
If you like a “soft” red — Merlot, for example — you’ll like Pisano’s Tannat. It’s a bit like a California Zinfandel in flavor, yet so soft it almost belongs in the “off-dry” category. I prefer sharper, more tannic wines, so I wasn’t overly enthused — but, like I said, I didn’t pour it down the drain.
The Tannat/Syrah/ Viognier blend poured an attractive deep-ruby color with faint red-fruit aromas (and even fainter notes of mushroom and earth). This was a lighter-bodied wine than the straight Tannat, with tart-cherry flavors and a bit of tar around the edges. It initially struck me as tasting un-ripe or watery, but it showed dramatic improvement after two hours’ aeration.
In case you’re wondering, this wine is — yes — a blend of red and white grape varieties. Viognier is a white-wine grape grown largely in France’s northern Rhone valley (where it’s used to make Condrieu). It’s the only white grape allowed by French winemaking law to be blended into one of the northern Rhone’s priciest wines: Syrah-based Cote Rotie. By itself, Viognier smells and tastes of peaches or ripe apricots, so it softens the tannins and enhances the bouquet of Syrah-based wines.
Both Pisano’s Tannat and its Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend are high in alcohol (13.5 percent ABV) but low in price (less than $10) so, even though I’m not “over the moon” about them, I still think they’re perfectly good Tuesday-night wines and well worth watching for better things to come. If you don’t want to take my word, consider that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines chose Pisano’s 2007 Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend to serve in its first class cabin. (Not widely available, but obtainable, so ask around.)