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By the Glass

Winemakers tame Uruguay’s irascible grape

Ellen Bhang for The Boston Globe/Ellen Bhang

Tannat is a thick-skinned, dark-hued varietal with a longstanding reputation for producing rough reds full of prickly tannins. Winemakers in Uruguay, tucked between Argentina and Brazil, are challenging that notion, eager to recast tannat as their signature grape.

Uruguay is home to just 3.4 million people, who happily consume most of their own wine. With 270 wineries, many clustered north of the capital, Montevideo, and peppering the length of a 400-mile southern Atlantic coastline, Uruguay’s total annual production of 10 million cases is less than that of a single large producer in Chile. Now Uruguayan winemakers are producing vibrant reds that are a natural match for grilled meats cooked outdoors over hot coals (more beef is consumed here than in neighboring Argentina).

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The grape could be aggressively astringent, but today’s bottles are easier to approach, with vibrant, ripe fruit that does not sacrifice its dry, chewy character. That’s what makes it steak’s best friend. Reds are mostly around 13.5 percent alcohol by volume, a percentage point lower than most Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

Tannat is originally from Madiran in southwest France. Like the French-originating malbec grape, now thriving in Argentina, tannat vines were brought to Uruguay in 1870 by Basque immigrant Pascual Harriague (the majority of the country’s inhabitants are of European descent). Many of the first arrivals from Spain and Italy also brought vine cuttings and winemaking traditions.

To tame tannins — components found in the skins and seeds of grapes that give reds their drying pucker — winemakers allow the fruit to hang on the vines as long as possible, ensuring seeds reach a crunchy, fully ripe state. Cold maceration, in which crushed grapes and their juice soak together at cool temperatures before fermentation, also softens irascible tannins.

Sommeliers around town are showcasing tannat. Patrick Gaggiano of La Brasa in Somerville thinks tannat is an up-and-coming grape. He is pouring a juicy, vivid bottle from Bodega Garzon, a pioneering producer in the new Uruguayan wine region of Maldonado. “Tannat has changed over the years,” says Gaggiano. “It used to be just a blending grape, but now we’re seeing more 100 percent tannat on the market.” He thinks these reds are much more balanced than bottles of past years, and the varietal’s black cherry, tar, chocolate, and white pepper notes pair splendidly with chef Daniel Bojorquez’s smoked beef brisket.

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The bar manager is mixing a fizzy Basque-inspired cocktail called Kalimoxo ($10) with housemade cola syrup, mulling spices, and a healthy splash of the Uruguayan red. Not that the tannat, no longer prickly, really needs a disguise.

Pueblo del Sol Tannat 2013 Simple yet pretty nose of cherry with a whiff of brambly berries. The palate of this unoaked bottle offers ripe red fruit with warm spices and a lingering lavender sachet note. From Familia Deicas, Establecimiento Juanico, Uruguay’s largest fine wine producer. Around $10. At Beaver Brook Bottles, Waltham, 781-609-2576; Sudbury Wine & Spirits, Sudbury, 978-443-1300.

Marichal Tannat 2011 Aromas of spicy red plum combine with high-toned balsamic notes in this unoaked red. Bright acidity undergirds ripe red fruit, a generous dollop of rounded tannins, and a dry white pepper finish. Crafted by a fourth-generation winemaking family who also makes a lovely tannat-pinot noir blend. Around $16. At Golden Goose Market, North End, 617-367-8134; Seiyo Wine Shop, South End, 617-447-2183.

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Bodegas Carrau “Ysern” Tannat 2007 Made with fruit from two vine growing regions, one in the north and one near the coastal south, the effects of time and aging in French and American oak show up beautifully. Integrated aromas of tobacco leaf, violets, and red fruit, offering fine grained tannins that call out for a peppercorn crusted steak. Named for a Catalonian matriarch who influenced the Carrau family to enter the wine business in 1700. Around $23. At Wine & Cheese Cask, Somerville, 617-623-8656; Pairings, Winchester, 781-721-9463.

Bodegas Carrau “Amat” Tannat 2009 The grapes of this single vineyard bottle hail from the Cerro Chapeu region on Uruguay’s northeastern border with Brazil. Aromas of this red, aged in French oak, are appetizingly rich with tobacco leaf, crushed blue flowers, and a hint of dried orange peel. A muscular, tart-dominant palate offers firm, rounded tannins that finishes delectably dry. Around $30. Wine & Cheese Cask; Needham Fine Wines, Needham, 781-400-1769.


Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.