Tannat is a red-wine grape whose origins lie in the Basque country, on the border between France and Spain. Here, in the shadow of the Pyrenees Mountains, the terrain is rough and rugged, so it is only fitting that Tannat should create wines which are equally deep, dark, dry and rustic.
Although Tannat is still used among the foothills here, the most famous Tannat wine is made a little way to the north, in Madiran. The name of this tiny village, which is also home to the less-famous white Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, is virtually synonymous with that of the Tannat grape.
© Silvaspoon Vineyards
The grape can be found in other appellations of South West France. Nearby Irouléguy, Tursan and Béarn all count Tannat as a major red grape although this is in conjunction with Cabernet Franc (Tursan) or both Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc (Irouléguy and Béarn).
Both Cabernets can be found in the Madiran appellation although, along with Fer Servadou, they are considered "accessory" varieties and cannot comprise more than 20 percent of any vineyard. Tannat must make up more than 50 percent of any Madiran wine.
Further abroad, Tannat's success in the Americas (notably Uruguay), has made quite an impression. Indeed, Tannat has migrated with relative ease and is now planted in Argentina, Australia, the US (California, Oregon and Virginia), Brazil and even in southern Italy's Puglia region, where it is used as a blending grape.
The Tannat vines growing in the Americas are subtly (but noticeably) different from those found in modern-day French vineyards, because the oldest of them are direct descendants of the pre-phylloxera cuttings taken across the Atlantic in the 19th Century. The net effect of this is that Uruguayan Tannat is slightly lower in the tannins for which Madiran has long been known.
As Uruguayan vignerons import new Tannat clones from French vineyards, they are noticing and commenting on the softer, more powerful styles of wine the clones produce. This presents them with an important opportunity, as they have at their disposal two distinct types of Tannat, both of which are nonetheless genetically Tannat.
Should they wish to retain the Uruguayan style (which also happens to be the historic French style), they need only clone their oldest vines and breed virus resistance into them.
The reason for the new French clones producing more powerful wines is simply that they have been propagated to that end, to cater to modern consumer preferences. Softer, higher-alcohol wines are in demand, so grapes like Tannat, with its high natural acidity and aggressive tannins, are in danger of being overrun by well-known favorites like plump Merlot and spicy, juicy Syrah.
In response to these trends, modern Madiran producers are experimenting with various techniques to increase the suppleness and approachability of their wines. The favorite among these so far is micro-oxygenation (known in France as "microbullage"), a process developed in the 1990s by which oxygen is trickled slowly through the wine while in tank, or even in barrel during fermentation and/or maturation.
It is believed that this process ("microx" to the initiated) also brings greater stability to the wines, in terms of both structure and color. Oak aging is also increasingly used to bring complexity and a subtle vanilla-laden sweetness to Madiran's Tannats.
Of course, top-quality barrels must be used to avoid counterproductively introducing further tannins or sappy, woody flavors.
As suggested in local appellation laws, the more traditional approach is to blend Tannat with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and/or the local stalwart, Fer Servadou, whose less-astringent tannins serve to soften the final wine and make it approachable sooner after vintage.
Modern French Tannat is characterized by its firm tannin structure, deep color, high alcohol, and its ability to age well. The aroma profile is gently tarry and redolent of stewed red berries ("warm raspberry jam" sums this up well).
When used to make rosé wines (in Irouléguy, for example) the Tannat grapes undergo a strictly limited maceration period to prevent the leaching of undesirable tannin levels. Despite this short skin contact, the resulting wines are typically full bodied and very fruity.
Back in Uruguay, a slightly different approach is taken to blending Tannat. Rather than blend it with varieties that are only slightly less rustic, the Uruguayan approach is often to introduce it to the likes of Pinot Noir and Merlot, whose soft, rounded fruit characters are almost the antithesis of Tannat. This results in a spectrum of possible styles comparable to anything from Beaujolais to Port, depending on the winemaking technique.
Some purists might suggest that it is Uruguay which has the "true" Tannat, as the style there is more akin to olden-day Madiran. Whatever the case, Tannat will most likely be adopted as the national grape of Uruguay, and its links with France will gradually fade.
Synonyms include: Maidiran, Harriague, Moustrou, Bordeleza Beltza.
Food pairings for Tannat wines include:
- Piperrada (spicy Basque ratatouille)
- Spiced beef sausages with mash
- Marinated lamb skewers