If you ask most people to name a few grapes that are used to make wine they will likely include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and maybe even Sauvignon Blanc. A few more educated consumers may tell you about Riesling or Malbec, perhaps even Cabernet Franc. If you were to ask even the most knowledgeable wine professionals, few would mention Tannat, even if they were well educated on the topic. Why is this so?
Tannat is a red wine grape that originates from the Basque region in Southwest France, and is still produced today in the Madiran wine region of Gascony. This is a relatively obscure region for French wine, even though it makes some high quality, age-worthy reds. The Madiran region contains about 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of vineyards, and when compared to the 120,000 hectares ( 296,000 acres) of vineyards in Bordeaux, it is understandable why few have sampled these wines. Some of the top wines coming out of this region are made from 100% Tannat, but these are wines of intense tannin and deep color, meant to be aged for several years before consumption, certainly not the style that most consumers are likely to pick up at the grocery store.
When you think of Tannat, think tannins (check out this helpful VinePair article for more info on this key wine substance). The name comes from the Oc language from Southwest France, meaning ‘tanned’. This makes perfect sense when one considers the grape’s thick, dark skin, high levels of polyphenols and lots of tannins. Tannat juice makes inky black wines with plenty of structure and extra antioxidants. This is why Tannat is not made into wine that one would drink young, or at least not without some rich food to pair with it. These grapes tend to make wines with flavors like blackberry, black plum, licorice, smoke, leather, tobacco, chocolate and even tar. Tannat wines are generally higher in alcohol, and depending on the region can make wines of 14% and 15% ABV.
As consumption has been moving toward younger, easier drinking styles of wines, Tannat winemakers have had to adapt their methods to accommodate for this demand. Many Tannat wines are aged for long periods in oak; some reaching up to 24 months in French or American barrels. Winemakers have even found newer methods to shorten this timeframe such as Micro-oxygenation. This method essentially mimics the natural wood aging process, where oxygen enters the wine slowly through the wood grain, gently softening tannins. Micro-oxygenation is typically achieved by pushing oxygen through a porous ceramic stone in a resting tank. This process can achieve in several months what oak aging would accomplish in several years. This manipulation is often used in wines with lots of tannin, and is seen in France, the United States, Argentina, Chile and several other countries.
Outside of Madiran, the most notable producer of Tannat wines is Uruguay. Basque immigrants brought their vines to Uruguay in the 19th century. Here, Tannat is typically blended with lighter varietals, like Syrah and Pinot Noir, in order to soften up the mouth shredding tannins. Oak is usually used in large doses to help round out the ripe, dark fruit and soften the tannin structure. Tannat has been the key for Uruguayan winemakers to continue to increase quality while differentiating from other Latin American wine producers.
Bolivia has become the new frontier for Tannat wine production. After only moderate success with the classic international varietals planted in the 60s and 70s (Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.), winemakers started seeking out more obscure cultivars to plant. Tannat was seen as a vine with high potential, especially for Bolivia’s high altitude vineyards. The extra UV exposure at these altitudes can be damaging to the fruit, but Tannat’s thicker-skinned grapes have no problem thriving. In fact, these grapes tend to produce higher levels of polyphenols, antioxidants that protect the fruit, much like the sunscreen we use to protect our skin.
Bolivian Tannat wines are made in a wide variety of styles: from un-oaked, cool climate styles to richer, fuller wines with generous amounts of barrel aging. Bolivian Tannat wines are generally be more approachable and less aggressive than the traditional French styles, often enjoyed young. These wines can be very similar to those of Uruguay but with more pronounced acidity, due to the cool mountain nights found in the vineyards at elevations above 1750 meters (5740 feet). This acidity can make the Bolivian Tannats feel a bit lighter and fresher while giving a sensation of juiciness to the fruit flavors. Many of the highest quality wines are 100% Tannat, though some are cut with grapes like Merlot to soften their edges and make them more approachable.
Though much of the science is still not completely understood, health professionals generally support a moderate consumption of wine for health, especially those with high levels of polyphenols. This weighty article from the NIH discusses the many benefits of polyphenols in wine, and the good news is that Tannat has a ton of them. Tannat's thick skins and dark color are signs of its high levels of polyphenols, so enjoying a glass can certainly add to your health. The great new is that Bolivian wines have been found to be among the highest in polyphenol content due to research conducted on wines from high altitude. However, do not forget that the positive health benefits of that glass can quickly be negated by consuming too much alcohol and stressing the body; balance is key.
As familiarity with Tannat grows thanks to the hard work of importers, wine retailers and wine writers like those at Wine Folly (great article on Tannat here) expect to see more examples hit the shelves in your wine retailers, whether they are classic wines from Madiran, or newer styles from the Southern Hemisphere. If you are still not sure which style of Tannat best suits your tastes, trust your local wine retailers and let them help you pick out the one that will match your palate.