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Home | Red Grape MP | Tannat - Taxes and Tannins

Tannat - Taxes and Tannins

July 24, 2013

For many wine drinkers, saying the word “Tannat” usually involves a question such as “To drink or Tannat (to not)?”  Others may ask “Should I have wine Tannat (tonight) or tomorrow night?”  And others just ask “What the heck is Tannat!?”  The majority of those can be pardoned, as the little known grape has largely remained in obscurity outside of its ancestral home in the Basque region of France (for the record, the correct pronunciation is tan NAT).  But thanks to advances in science and technology, Tannat is being reexamined in its birthplace.  And New World vintners are giving Tannat an open audition in their vineyards, with some having promising early results.

Where does Tannat grow?

Tannat has been cultivated in southwest France for quite some time.  And while it still is an important grape to several winegrowing regions in the area, Tannat has also crossed the Atlantic and has been given a chance to showcase its abilities in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and the United States.  It also spread to the Puglia region of Italy as well as Australia.  Yet, two countries in particular seem to have given Tannat particular attention.

France - At the base of the imposing Pyrenees Mountains, Tannat has long been used to make wine with some vintners even using it to pay taxes to the throne.  Yet the wines from the Basque country never reached a level that other, more prominent French regions enjoy today.  This was due in part to the high level of tannins found in Tannat and the rustic winemaking techniques used in the rural region for much of its history.  Fortunately, the latter is helping the former as winemakers are using newfound knowledge to grow, vinify, and age Tannat appropriately.  Madiran AOC is one of the most important winegrowing regions for Tannat as its wines must contain 40-60% of the tannic red grape, with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Fer Servadou comprising the remaining percentage.  Tannat is also grown in Irouléguy, Tursan, and Béarn.

French Producers to look for: Chateau Montus, Chateau Bouscasse, Domaine Laffont, Chapelle l'Enclose, Chateau Saint-Benazit, and Domaine Moreou.

Uruguay - There is not another country that has so enthusiastically embraced Tannat.  In fact, Tannat is now the “official” grape of Uruguay and accounts for one-third of the wine produced there.  Brought by Basque settlers in the 1870s, Tannat quickly took to its new South American home and showed promising potential.  Yet it would take some time for Uruguay to develop a reputation for making quality wine (an ongoing challenge) and understand how to coax the best out of this little-known varietal.

Uruguayan Producers to look for: Vinedo de Los Vientos, Bouza, Bodegas Carrau, Pueblo del Sol, H. Stagnari, Establecimiento, and Pisano.

The Styles of Tannat

The wines made in Madiran and the other winegrowing regions in southwest France that use Tannat extensively have often carried the stigma of being “rustic” and unremarkable, if not downright awful. Tannat, being a grape with a high level of tannins, can be challenging for vintners because of the astringent nature of the resulting wine. In these regions of France many winemakers have sought the help of other grape varietals to tone down this off-putting characteristic.  But some have used winemaking techniques such as “micro-oxygenation” and careful oak aging to soften the tannic nature of the wines, making them more approachable at a younger age.  But these wines still display a firm tannin structure to go along with a high alcohol content, deep color, and full body.  These characteristics also make their wines age-worthy with the tannin structure softening over time in the barrel and bottle.

In Uruguay (as well as other regions in the Americas), winemakers still contend with the high tannins in the grape but have noticed an interesting difference between their wines and those from France. Because the first Tannat vines were imported in the 1870s, they were not affected by the phylloxera plight that ravaged Europe shortly after.  After close attention it was determined that these “American” vines were a different clone than those in France and displayed different characteristics, including slightly lower tannins.  This important difference results in Uruguayan Tannat being a bit softer than those in France, in general terms.  Winemakers in Uruguay are also free from AOC regulations and can use a variety of different grapes to create unique blends to highlight favorable facets of Tannat.  Blends using Pinot Noir, Merlot, Viognier, and Syrah are just a handful of examples that can be found, which results in a wide spectrum of styles.  So while Tannat may be the “official” grape of Uruguay, there is hardly an “official” style that a wine drinker will find on the shelf.

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