Tannat: a peculiar, thick-skinned, intense, tannic, and delicious grape that originated in French Basque Country.
Bolivia: an oft forgotten South American country with 500 years of winemaking history that you need to learn more about.
I have covered a little bit about this grape in previous posts about the origins of Tannat and Tannat in Uruguay. Certainly Uruguay has done a lot for this grape, bringing it into the conversation of modern South American wines. Winemakers in Canelones have helped show that Tannat doesn’t always need to be aged for 10 years until it reaches its potential, much like the style of wine from Madiran, France, Tannat's most classic region. There are tricks to calming the intense tannins of Tannat wines like micro-oxygenation, blending, and barrel regiments, but terroir plays an important role in the balance and drinkability of the final product.
Bolivian winemakers started planting Tannat in the late 90s. During the last 20 years they have seen a lot of success both in local and export markets. Plantings of this grape varietal have increase exponentially and are now seen in most Bolivian wine regions. So why did Tannat become the next big thing in Bolivia?
To put it simply: altitude. All of Bolivia’s vineyards lie within altitudes from 1,400 to 3,000 meters above sea level (4,600 - 9,800 feet), and are closer to the equator than most wine regions. This combination creates a region with higher levels of solar radiation, which can greatly affect plants. Much like you and I would need to apply sunscreen to protect our skin from the ultraviolet rays, grapevines also must protect themselves and their seeds. Vines grow grapes with thicker skins, produce darker pigments, and generate higher levels of antioxidants. (More information in this VinePair article)
Tannat has extremely dark pigmented and thick skins. In fact the name originates in a local dialect in French Basque country, where it roughly translates to ‘tanned’. The means that it is already well suited for this higher level of UV exposure. This vine is also very tough, able to handle periods of drought or intense rains, and it can resist various types of pests and diseases. Many Bolivian winemakers have been planting experimental vineyards over the last few decades and several have come independently to the conclusion that Tannat is well suited for the challenging, high altitude wine growing regions.
Though Bolivia has more than 400 years of winemaking history, it is still a country that is finding its style. In 1999, Bodega Aranjuez in Tarija planted the first Tannat grapes in the country, and very quickly saw great potential in the inky wines it produced. In 2003, Bodega Uvairenda planted their first Tannat vines at their vineyard in Samaipata, Bolivia as part of an experimental plot. They recognized the value of this grape in a slightly cooler climate that that of Tarija. It still produced intense wines with great structure, dark fruits, tobacco, leather, and earthy notes, while still being fresh and vibrant thanks to the cool climate acid levels.
Bolivian Tannat can range in style depending on the winemaker and the terroir of the region in which it is grown. In Tarija, Tannat gets ripe, fruity, and intense due to the combination of high altitude (between 5,500 and 6,500 feet), a semi-arid climate, and warm summers. Further up north in the Santa Cruz Valleys, especially in Samaipata, Tannat ripens slowly with slightly cooler temperatures than Tarija and cool, foggy mornings. The Tannat wines from these valleys tend to be well structured with a crisp acidity typical of cooler climates. They also have balance between dark fruits and the earthy aromas Tannat is known for, such as tobacco, tar, and smoke.
The Cinti Valley produces an interesting balance between these two as it lies in higher elevations around 2,300 m.a.s.l. (7,550 feet) while being an extremely arid, semidesert climate. Here, the ambient temperature never gets extremely high, but the intensity of the sun helps grapes to reach full maturity. The cold, high altitude desert nights allow for the grapes to maintain high levels of acidity, which yield bold wines with rich fruit profiles and strong acid profiles giving the wines great balance. Only a few producers in the Cinti Valley are working with Tannat, and many vines are still rather young, so the potential of this region still remains to be seen.
Notable Bolivian Producers of Tannat by Region
Samaipata Valley / The Santa Cruz Valleys
Bodega Uvairenda - 1750 Single Varietal Tannat, 1750 Gran Reserva Blend
The Valleys of Tarija
Bodega Aranjuez - Single Varietal Tannat, ‘Duo’ Tannat/Merlot Blend, Tannat Origen, Juan Cruz Gran Reserva Tannat
Campos de Solana - Tannat Único, Trivarietal Blend (Tannat, Malbec, Petit Verdot)
Casona de Molina - Don Martín Tannat/Malbec Blend
Bodega y Viñedos La Cueva - Puruva Single Varietal Tannat