The Tannat varietal originated in southwest France but is the dominant grape in Uruguay, where the small but prosperous wine sector is pushing forward with expansion in the U.S. market. It’s a slow simmer at the moment, and few believe that Tannat or Uruguayan wine will become mainstream any time soon, if ever. Instead, they’re looking to carve out a small, unique niche in the South American wine sector in the U.S.
“People are always ready for something new,” says Kirk Ermisch, owner of Elixir Wine Group, which imports wines from Bodega Bouza. “We’ve been beating that drum for a while now and people have finally come around.” He notes that the wines have improved over the past decade and that, coupled with the penchant of U.S. gatekeepers and consumers to seek out new and interesting wines, has helped Bouza make inroads into the crowded market.
Mark Giordano is president of Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits, which imports the wines of Bodega Garzón, the largest Uruguayan wine brand in the U.S. market. He agrees that the unique varietal offerings from Uruguay are sparking interest. “It’s tough to tell a new story about Chile and Argentina whereas Uruguay offers everything new,” he says. He says the top exported Uruguayan wine to the U.S. is Garzón Tannat, followed by Garzón Albariño. “It’s really fun for us to educate people about grapes they’re not familiar with,” Giordano adds.
Giordano says Bodega Garzón sold roughly 30,000 cases in the U.S. in 2020, and he estimates that the winery accounts for about 70% of sales of Uruguayan wine in the U.S. The dominance in the category means Giordano is seeking positioning beyond the confines of the country. “We’re pushing to be seen in the South American category where we compete with the top wines from Argentina and Chile,” he says.
Developing The Sector
Currently, there are only about 20 Uruguayan wineries exporting to the U.S. market, leading importers estimate, and only a handful of brands have broken through with anything resembling a national footprint.
Martina Litta, foreign trade coordinator for the Uruguay Wine trade group, believes the sector is ripe for expansion in the U.S. “Our main objective is not only growth in liters export, but to have more wineries exporting to the U.S. market,” she says. The group is actively promoting the wines in the U.S. on a small scale and is getting some traction.
Importers began laying the groundwork for Uruguayan wine more than a decade ago but, with very few exceptions, didn’t make much progress until the past five years or so. Ermisch says he was a “believer” and one of the first to import wines from Uruguay—Bouza is his sole Uruguayan label. He also says through much of the 2010s making inroads was painstaking, with gatekeepers reluctant to gamble on a $20-plus unknown varietal from a country with limited global experience in wine. This has changed recently. “It’s not nearly as hard as it used to be,” he says. “We have an increasingly larger footprint with the wines nationally. They get to the point where they are more and more allocated, which is a really good sign.”
Larry Challacombe, president and co-founder of Global Vineyard Importers, also remembers some lean times. His company began importing Marichal wines seven years ago. “We knew it was going to take a while to sell Uruguayan wines to consumers,” he says. Strong reviews and inclusion of Marichal Tannat on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 2020 have helped awaken the gatekeepers to the potential.
Leslie Fellows, owner and director of Artesana Winery, and her partners saw potential nearly two decades ago when first visiting the country in 2003. They planted their first grapes in 2007 and brought wines to market a few years later. An American, Fellows says she saw the potential to be part of a swell in a fledgling category. The goal was to bring Tannat to the U.S. and produce Zinfandel for the Uruguayan market. “That was easier said than done,” she says. “It was a hard sell and a tough category.”
Fellows credits Garzón for clearing the path for other wineries. “The landscape started to change about four years ago” when Garzón began gaining significant traction in the U.S., Fellows explains “In fact, all of the smaller producers have ridden on the coattails of Garzón, which really has put Uruguay on the map. It’s really thanks to them and their huge dollars and promotions.”
Julio Robledo, co-founder and president of Grand Cata, a two-store Latin American wine specialty retailer in Washington, D.C., agrees. “Because of Garzón, people recognize Uruguayan wines and that Uruguay is more than just a country next to Brazil or to Argentina in the wine world,” he says.
Giordano admits that “we’re more about pushing Garzón and the innovation story” than pushing Uruguayan wine region as a whole. “Restaurants are starting to call out Uruguay on wine lists, and we’re paving that road,” he adds. “We’re pro-Uruguay, we just happen to be focused on Garzón.”
And Garzón has certainly made waves in the U.S. The Garzón Reserve Tannat was the first Uruguayan wine to make the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 2017, and the winery and wines have won numerous awards since then.
Tannat At The Fore
Garzón is perhaps more diversified than most Uruguayan wineries, producing Tannat and Albariño as well as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, rosé, and other varietals. The entry-level Reserve tier, led by Tannat, carries suggested retail prices of $15-$20 a 750-ml. The company’s single vineyard labels come in at around $35 while its “icon” wine, Balasto ($120 a 750-ml.), referencing the ballast soil in the vineyards, is a blend of Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Marselan and retails for about $120. This fall, the company is adding two sparkling wines and a late harvest wine to its U.S. portfolio. Giordano notes that the Reserve Tannat leads in exports, followed by the Reserve Albariño, and says restaurateurs are excited to showcase something new, assuming the quality is right. “Sometimes it’s an advantage if you’re not a well-known varietal or country of origin because it’s more impressive for the on-premise,” he says.
Others echo Giordano’s enthusiasm for the lesser-known varietals. Litta says she sees Tannat, and to a lesser extent Albariño, as the varietals that will propel growth for Uruguayan wines. “I like to say Tannat is the flagship and cover letter of Uruguay in the world,” she says.
Challacombe of Global Vineyard Importers agrees. “To get attention in this wine world where everybody is growing everything, Tannat is a real door opener,” he says. “And then you can move on to other varietals.”
Tannat’s uniqueness is its main selling point, he adds. “Very few people have Tannat,” he says. “What Malbec is to Argentina and what Carménère is to Chile is what Tannat will be to Uruguay.” That said, Challacombe notes that Uruguay is a tiny country with few exporting wineries, so the scale of growth in the U.S. market will be limited. In the Global Vineyard Imports portfolio, the entry-level Marichal Tannat retails for $16 a 750-ml., while Marichal Sauvignon Blanc carries a suggested retail price of $14. The winery also produces a Reserve Collection Tannat ($20) and a Grand Reserve Tannat “A” ($65).
Artesana wines are imported into the U.S. by Austral Estate Wines, the import division of American Estate Wines. The lead brand is Tannat Reserva, but it also produces a blend comprising Tannat, Merlot, and Zinfandel and a Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Merlot blend, which all retail for about $20 a 750-ml. The company’s Tannat rosé sells for $14.
Bouza also leads with a Tannat label; the 2018 Bouza Tannat Reserva retails for $25 a 750-ml. while the 2019 Albariño sells for $27. The range increases from there, with the 2018 Bouza Monte Vida EU carrying a $64 suggested price tag. Elixir’s Ermisch says Tannat’s unique attributes are its selling point. “It’s a big, bold, delicious, juicy red from a country that most people haven’t experienced,” he says. “People can figure out the name, and it has interesting story with its French origins. It’s a whole little travelogue in a wine.”
Keeping Tannat and Uruguayan wines unique and special comes at a price. Robledo says tastings are crucial to introduce customers to the segment. “Price points on Uruguayan wines are going to be a little bit higher than Chile or even Argentina, but they are totally worth it to try,” he says. “Because there is limited quantity, that also puts the price up a little bit higher.”
In Washington, D.C., Grand Cata’s strategy is to introduce customers to Uruguayan wines, which are very much a handsell even in Latin American-centric stores. “We want customers to taste Tannat and Albariños from Uruguay,” says Robledo. “Once they do they come back. People are surprised about the quality of the wines.”
Importers are working hard to keep Uruguayan wines firmly in the super-premium and above price category. “We’ve really had to sell the idea that Uruguay is a boutique wine producing country where all operate on a very small scale and everything is done sustainably,” says Fellows. “That’s why you’ll pay a bit more.”
Compared to other South American wines, “Uruguay is certainly a price point up,” says Ermisch. That’s how he wants to keep it, rather than face the specter of large volume producers flooding the market with inexpensive wines. At the moment, there are no mega-producers in Uruguay. Garzón is the largest—exporting roughly 30,000 cases to the U.S. in 2020, according to Giordano. In total there are fewer than 100 wineries in the country, and only about 20 of those export to the U.S. That number is likely to grow, but importers say both the country and the wine sector are too small to make huge waves in the U.S. wine market. “What’s great about Uruguay is we’re not looking for a big slice of the pie,” Fellows says, noting that Artesana produces about 3,000 cases each year. “That’s typical of most of the wineries. There are really only a few producing 30,000, 40,000, or 50,000 and above. We know Uruguay is never going to be Argentina or Chile. We’re a super-niche wine producing country looking for a small market in the U.S. and other places.”