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Tannat: The Dark Horse of the Wine World finds Light in Uruguay…and Paso Robles!

Part One: From France to Uruguay

The Southwest of France is one of the most interesting and under-appreciated wine regions in France. It is known for a wealth of AOCs that capture the spirit of unique grapes – the honeyed nectars of Petit Manseng in Jurancon, the perfumed animal aromas of Negrette in Fronton, the vibrant fruits of Argentina’s grateful hostage Malbec (or Cot) in Cahors and my favorite – the prickly, hard to wrangle, sublimely deep and chewy Tannat of the Basques in Madiran AOC in the foothills of the Pyrénées.

Tannat, which wears its tannins with such adamancy that in Madiran they use Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending wine to soften it, has always struck me as a brave warrior of a grape, dominating an entire AOC, its small thick-skinned dark berries doing battle with Madiran winemakers who invented the technique of micro-oxygenation (Microx) to tame its tough tannins. (Microx is the pumping of tiny bubbles of oxygen into wine and was approved by the European Commission in 1996; today it is also used on high-tannin grapes in Bordeaux, as well as in 11 other countries.)

As prickly as an adolescent girl in its youth, for those who are willing to wait, the rewards of the solidly structured, very age-worthy Tannat can be great. And nowhere is that more on display than in Uruguay where it is the country’s most widely planted grape – over 25% of Uruguay’s annual wine production of over 957K hectoliters is dedicated to Tannat (more than in France). Like Malbec and Carmenere, neglected French grapes that have become flagship grapes of Argentina and Chile respectively, Tannat has found a most appreciative host in Uruguay whose Tannat-based wines are receiving increasing recognition and adulation globally – in fact Uruguay’s Bodega Garzon, a pioneer of Tannat planting and production, was just named New World Winery of the Year by The Wine Enthusiast.

Tannat grapes, Montevideo, Uruguay, South America

While Tannat has taken like a native to Uruguay’s mild, maritime Atlantic climate – the grape’s birthplace is, indeed, Madiran. Tannat’s name is derived, according to Jancis Robinson, “from the Béarn dialect tanat, meaning ‘coloured like tan’.” Tannat arrived in Uruguay around 1870, during an influx of Basque immigration. For over a century the grape was called Harriague after the Basque Frenchman Don Pascual Harriague who planted a Tannat vineyard in the northern region of Salto.

In addition to luxuriating in the warmer climate of Uruguay, which allow its aggressive tannins to ripen softly, its thick skins serve as good raincoats for the country’s high rainfall – while the seasonal shifts of its Bordeaux-like climate and its calcium rich soils keeps the acid high and the fruit fresh. Apart from its welcoming terroir, Tannat’s growing popularity in Uruguay is a no-brainer: Uruguay has the highest wine consumption per capita outside Europe and is also the world’s largest consumer of beef per capita – and Tannat stands up beautifully to robust beef dishes.

Amanda Barnes of Wines of Uruguay and South American Wine The Wine Bloggers (Media) Conference in Walla Walla

I already had an interest in Tannat, and some experience tasting California expressions of the grape, through my work with The Garagiste Festival, whose micro-production artisan central coast winemakers are increasingly experimenting with Tannat – from single varietal wines to Roses to blends – so I jumped at the opportunity to taste a range of Uruguayan Tannats and Tannat blends at this year’s Wine Bloggers (now Media) Conference, during a seminar taught by wine journalist and Wines of Uruguay ambassador Amanda Barnes.

These wines surprised me with their nuance and Old World character – and certainly lived up to their reputation for being softer, lighter, less rustic and more finessed than their Madiran counterparts.

Barnes made particular note of the high anti-oxidant quality of Tannat which makes it, according to Barnes (and Uruguay Wines marketing), “one of the healthiest wines in the world” – something borne out by the fact that Gers (one of the departments of Madiran) has more than double the national average of men in their nineties.

Uruguayan Tannat’s touted characteristics of black fruit, spice, cocoa, tobacco and licorice were all on display in the samples we tasted … and more: some expressing distinctly red fruit notes, a disarming plushness and robust meatiness, with those grown on granitic – versus clay – soils possessing soft minerality and distinctive energy. Oak is widely used, but well-integrated, in these wines and concrete fermentation tanks are also employed.

The outstanding wine of the six I tasted was, not surprisingly, the single vineyard Tannat from Garzon, fermented in cement tanks, with 12 – 18 months on the lees in French oak – vibrant, peppery, and fresh with deep dark plummy fruits. This bottle is a bargain at around $30 but good luck finding it… most of the wine shops I called in LA were either ‘out of stock’ of Uruguayan Tannat, or did not carry it – although Wally’s and Flask in the valley had a bottle or two.

A close second was Familia Deicas Valle de los Manantiales, another single vineyard Tannat grown on granitic soils that mixed floral notes with its fruits. Interestingly, the winemaker on this is Paul Hobbs, a flying winemaker of sorts who has done much to raise the profile of South American wines through his winery in Argentina.

Winemakers in Uruguay, as in Madiran, blend Tannat with other grapes to soften it, including Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and, in one of my favorites of the blends we tasted, Marselan – a Cabernet Sauvignon/Garnacha cross from Southern France that is an increasingly important variety in Uruguay.

The Traversa Noble Alianza Marselan/ Merlot/Tannat blend was an invigorating mouthful, its tannins perhaps not for the faint of heart or palate (a Wine Enthusiast reviewer called it hard as nails…I disagree), but the wine had a lightness to it as well and, retailing at $12, it is a massive bargain…. if only one could find it….and there is the rub. But I would encourage wine consumers to ask your local wine shop if they stock a Uruguayan Tannat, you never know what you might find and it is definitely worth the adventure.

My favorites:

Garzón Single Vineyard Tannat Bodega Garzón Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits $30

Familia Deicas Valle de los Manantiales Familia Deicas $40

Traversa Noble Alianza Marselan-Merlot-Tannat $12

These are also worth seeking out:

Pisano Rio de los Pajaros Tannat Familia Pisano Viñedos & Bodegas (winemaker Gustavo Pisano) Progreso, Canelones (clay-calcareous) 6 months in French oak Total Wine $16

Marichal Reserve Tannat Bodega Marichal (winemaker Juan Andres Marichal) Etchevarría, Canelones. (25km from Rio de la Plata. Calcareous clay) 17 day fermentation. 70% aged in oak 12 months. Global Vineyard Importers $18

Artesana Zinfandel-Merlot-Tannat Artesana Winery (winemakers Analia Lazaneo & Valentina Gatti) Las Brujas, Canelones. 20 day cool maceration in stainless steel. 12 months in French & American oak. Austral Estates Wines $18

Part Two: Tannat Meets Paso Robles Renegades – a Match Made in Tannin!

Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles

Tannat, like so many Rhone varieties, was introduced and popularized in the US by Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek, who were responsible for successfully petitioning the BATF to recognize Tannat as a separate grape variety in the US in 2002. Tannat had its US beginnings in 1990 when a nurseryman for Beaucastel’s Perrin family, who partner with Tablas Creek, sneaked a Tannat cutting in with Rhone cuttings exported to Tablas Creek from France.

According to Tablas Creek, when the contraband was discovered and the nurseryman was asked why, he said: “I know this grape, and from what I’ve learned about Paso Robles, it should grow well there. You should try it.” And that is exactly what Tablas Creek did and they found it to be one of their easiest grapes to grow, getting “riper in Paso Robles than anywhere else in the world, while still maintaining its wonderful structure.”

Tablas Creek ferments its Tannat in open tanks for more oxygen exposure to help soften the tannins. From under an acre planted in 1996, Tablas Creek now has 3.5 acres dedicated to Tannat and produces 9 tons of Tannat fruit a year.

The Wine Advocate gives Tablas Creek’s 2016 Tannat 92 points: “….wafting from the glass with a pure bouquet of red cherry, licorice and black olive…full-bodied, richly tannic and layered, with an ample core of juicy fruit and a long, chewy finish.”

But it is not just the larger wineries that are vinifying Tannat, I am seeing many of the small production winemakers who pour at the Garagiste Festival (the only wine festival dedicated to commercial artisan producers making under 1500 cases) working with this grape…. which begs the question of why would a small production winemaker tackle a grape variety already ‘owned’ by Uruguay, and one that can produce wines that reviewers call hard as nails and that is so tough, it launched a tannin-taming production technique (one that is likely not used by these winemakers)?

Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles

Well, the first answer is that these winemakers tend to be renegades who are always on the lookout for a winemaking challenge and, frankly, who have the vision to recognize the potential of a grape whose name very few wine consumers would recognize – so, to me, it makes perfect sense.

But to get it straight from the crafters of two of the more delicious Tannats I have tasted at the Garagiste Festival, I went right to the source – Stewart McLennan, winemaker for Paso Robles-based Golden Triangle Wines (and Co-founder of the Garagiste Festival) and Steve Lemley, winemaker for Paso’s Pulchella Winery. Their expressions of the grape are as different from their Uruguayan counterparts as Paso’s Mediterranean climate is from Uruguay’s Maritime – riper, fuller, darker. I asked them why they chose to work with Tannat and how they meet its particular challenges.

McLennan says he loves Tannat’s big mouthfeel and its wines that have huge structure and palate grip. “I work with neutral large format barrels or puncheons which allows the wines to age gently. These wines will stand up for years with beautiful deep color and structure.” Mclennan, typical of a garagiste, has piled on the challenge by making 100% whole cluster Tannat – a move that would seem completely counter intuitive as stems add tannin.

“Making Tannat in this style taught me so much about stem tannin and what I found is that the stem tannins work in conjunction with skin tannin and that because we are small production I can manage the fermentation and tannins.”

Stewart McLennan, winemaker for Golden Triangle Wines and Tannat enthusiast

Golden Triangle’s 2015 Tannat definitely is not shy about displaying its tannins, but it presents them like a faceted jewel on a velvet cushion of very ripe black fruits. There are very few bottles of this left. It now goes for $70 and is available only through the Golden Triangle website. When asked if he will be making more Tannat, as much as he would like to, McLennan cited the high costs of Tannat grapes as a challenge…. another indication of the increasing popularity of this grape with winemakers.

Santa Clarita-based Pulchella Winery makes wine from Paso Robles fruit including Tannat. Winemaker Steve Lemley says he likes working with Tannat because it is still a bit of a blank slate in the California wine industry and, like McLennan, his approach to Tannat is unorthodox – although he won’t spill the secrets of how he works with it.

“Tannat’s stylistic approach has not been established yet and that gives us the freedom to make it our own, our style, our way, our thing. We have spent a decade respecting this grape. Our Tannat goes through a polar opposite program than most of our other wines to achieve what we like. Once you figure out how to ferment and age it properly, there really aren’t any challenges with Tannat.”

Pulchella’s Henchman (100%) Tannat received a 91 score from Wine Enthusiast that touted its silky tannins and black plum, cola and big, fat berries ready to pop. It retails for $40 and is available through the Pulchella website and at their fantastic tasting room on Main Street in Old Town Newhall. Pulchella also produces a well-reviewed red blend “Awakening” that is dominated by Tannat It retails for $50.

“Tannat’s a very underutilized grape and if you find its sweet spot, it can literally fix any blend and is happy to stand on a mountain top, all by itself,” said Lemley. “My advice to anyone looking for a unique experience in a wine: seek out Tannat but enjoy multiple bottles before you form an opinion because no two bottles will be the same.”

I suggest taking Steve’s advice and try as many expressions of Tannat as you can find in your local wine shop! Or go to the source… while a trip to Uruguay or Madiran would be great, if you are in the LA area, it is easy to drive to Pulchella’s tasting room in Santa Clarita, or take the scenic 3 hour trip north to Paso to Tablas Creek and Golden Triangle – or come to one of the four annual Garagiste Festivals, held in Solvang, Sonoma, LA and Paso, where there is always Tannat on pour.

A great winter and summer wine, Tannat matches perfectly with roasted and smoked meats and game, sausages, and chunky aged cheeses, not to mention barbecue — and makes a wonderful alternative to the ubiquitous Cab. So go on and give it a try and, if nothing else, remember the longevity of all those ninety-plus, Tannat-drinking men in Madiran and drink to your health! Cheers!

The Tannin Warriors

Tablas Creek 2016 Tannat $40

Golden Triangle 2015 Tannat $70

Pulchella 2015 Henchman 100% Tannat $45/ 2015 Awakening (56% Tannat) $50

The Garagiste Festival: Solvang – Feb 8/9; Sonoma April 13th; LA July(TBD); Paso Robles Nov 8-10th

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