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, even though Tannat is also used in nearby Irouleguy, Tursan and Bearn. Although this remains the case for now, it is likely to change as a result of Tannat's success in the Americas (notably Uruguay), where it has made quite an impression.
Since its early days in southern France, Tannat has migrated with relative ease and is now planted in Argentina, Australia, the U.S. (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 engineered that way, 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. It is believed that this process ("micro-ox" 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 Tannat wines. Of course, top-quality barrels must be used to avoid counterproductively introducing further tannins or sappy, woody flavors.
A more traditional approach is to blend Tannat with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and local stalwart Fer Servadou, whose less-astringent tannins serve to soften the final wine and make it approachable sooner after vintage. The Madiran appellation laws have now been updated to allow for greater winemaking freedom when compiling these blends.
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 Irouleguy) 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. In Bearn both reds and rosés employ Tannat alongside the increasingly rare Manseng Noir (the dark-skinned form of Petit Manseng) and Petit Courbu.
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. In this way it will be following in the footsteps of former Bordeaux greats Malbec and Carmenere, which have been adopted by Argentina and Chile respectively.
Synonyms include: Maidiran, Harriague, Moustrou, Bordeleza Beltza.
Food matches include:
Europe: Cassoulet (confit duck and sausage stew), Piperrada (spicy basque ratatouille)
Americas: Uruguayan filet mignon burger (chivito)
Australasia/Oceania: Wild mushroom and eggplant filo
Africa/Middle East: Marinated lamb skewers (sosatie)