Tannat Finds a Toehold in California

Several grape varieties have raised their hands to be recognized in California’s trendy marketplace, only to be tried and then seemingly forgotten two years later when the fashion wheel just keeps rolling on. Could be Tannat’s (pronounced tuh NOT) turn on California’s big stage is just around the corner. Tannat is not new in the wine world. In fact it is even famous for a couple reasons. And Tannat vines have existed in California for well over a hundred years. They just never had their day in the spotlight. That’s not unusual. Dr. Eugene Hilgard brought hundreds of grape varieties to the University of California Ag school (then at Berkeley) in the 1880’s. Tannat was one of them. It joined the others in a research plot. As recently as 1960 there were 50,000 acres of Zinfandel vines planted in California, and less than 800 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel was your grandfather’s wine. Today there are 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, and 400 acres of Tannat. Cabernet is the wine of your successful business contemporaries. Perhaps Tannat will be the wine of the Millennial Generation.

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on theSpanish border. (GI)

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on the Spanish border. (GI)

Tannat comes from a region in southwest France traditionally known as Gascony. The region is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Pyrenees Mts. It is historically considered bounded on the north and east by the river system (Dordogne and Garonne) flowing out of the Pyrenees to form the Gironde estuary at Bordeaux. The region has a rich history, including Basque language antecedents from way before the Roman Empire, and 200 years of English rule (after Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152).  The climate is variable because the topography ranges from coastal plains to 10,000-ft peaks in the southern mountains. In plantable districts, soils often have high clay content from eroded glacial till. Two districts in the region are well-known for their unique grape varieties: Cahors for Malbec; and Madiran for Tannat.

Uruguay LabelIn 2007 Madiran wine was singled out by Dr. Roger Corder in his book, The Red Wine Diet, as the world champion for its procyanidin production in Tannat’s thick skins. Corder’s research indicates procyanidins are particularly useful at maintaining healthy arteries, and thus conferring longevity. Did I just hear everyone sit up a little straighter? Tannat grows well in clay soils, and resists the late Spring frost of mountain districts. It shrugs off mildew, and produces bigger crops than other varieties do in the mountains. Hmmm? You say Tannat wines are really good for you?

Would Tannat fit well in California’s Sierra Foothills? Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress?

Deeply colored Tannat berries.  (GI)

Deeply colored Tannat berries. (GI)

In the 1870s Basque emigrants arrived in Uruguay along with their Tannat vines. Today Uruguay has over 21,000 acres in wine grape production, with about a third of those being Tannat. Uruguay refers to Tannat as its national grape. Makes a lot of sense. Like Argentines just across the River Plate, Uruguayan restaurant diners love a big grill filled with grass-fed beef and sausages ~ pasta on the side. Tannats cost anywhere from $5 to $75, with tannin management playing a huge role in defining quality. The technique of micro-oxygenation was developed in Madiran in the early 1990’s specifically to hold down the abrasiveness of tannins in Tannat.

Blending with other grape varieties is the most common technique for arresting tannins in France. Madiran producers traditionally use an obscure grape called Fer.  Basque producers in a district on the Spanish border called Iroulegay routinely use 25% Cabernet Franc. In Cahors some producers blend 15% Tannat into their Malbec as a stiffener. Those are the wines they tend to age for the longest periods.

Uruguay has several high-quality producers. Montes Toscanini won a top medal at the London Intl. Wine Fair for their 2002 vintage. Fernando Carrau is also an Enology Professor at the Urugayan state university. H. Stagnari makes great wine, especially their Viejo Vinedes range for under $20. Bouza is run by a math professor whose top Tannats sell for $50-60 in the US.

In California Tannat has been pioneered by Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles. They are a cooperative venture between the family of importer Robert Haas (Vineyard Brands) and the Perrin family who own Ch. Beaucastel in the southern Rhône Valley of France. When they started in Paso, they operated as a nursery. Their nurseryman in France sent the original Tannat cuttings on his own saying, “Tannat should do well in the steep coastal hills.” The cuttings came out of mandatory US quarantine in Geneva, NY in 2002. The 2011 Tablas Creek wine is extremely dark, but fruity and plush in the mouth. It has lots of extract, but less grittiness than many Madiran or Uruguayan examples. The fruitiness has a character not unlike dried cranberries and fully ripe Santa Rosa plums (thank you Luther Burbank).

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

You have to taste any Tannat in order to plan a meal with it. It’s the tannin. A grilled hunk of grass-fed beef is going to work well with the more tannic models because you’re going to need to chew that meat. Grass-fed implies more flavor, and a lot more effort to masticate it. It’s not a bad trade-off. Plan ahead. Producers who have successfully tamed their tannins allow you to go in some wonderfully different directions. Medium rare duck breast with plum sauce was an absolutely inspired choice with my last bottle of the 2002 Toscanini Grand Tannat.

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  • winewiz

    I made Tannat in the 1990’s in Virginia. It’s one of the best varieties there.

  • Robert Haas

    Thanks for the interesting piece of history on Tannat in California. Actually, Tablas Creek received the cuttings that came through Geneva in 1993 and got about an acre in the ground in the vineyard in 1995. We received them because Beaucastel’s nurseryman had a nursery business in Uruguay and was confident that Tannat would do well here. So the vines are now 20 years old. We have subsequently planted some small plots head pruned, dry farmed. The vines do very well in our calcareous clay soils. They are one of our easiest varieties to cultivate and vinify. We do not blend them in any of our Rhône blends but simply vinify Tannat as a single variety that is on sale in our tasting room. Because of our long growing season and reliably warm climate the tannins are softer and riper than their counterparts in France.
    Bob Haas

  • Artesana Winery

    Nice article, thank you for the attention you bring to Tannat. As a winery owner in Uruguay (Artesana), it’s great to see Tannat getting some recognition. There are many outstanding and award winning wines produced in Uruguay that are starting to getting some traction here in US. Tablas Creek’s Tannat is one of the best examples I’ve tasted from California.