Tannat is hot

This is certainly my favorite new-to-Texas variety.  Maybe because it is so suited to our climate (and, I would argue, even more so than to its original home).  Or perhaps because it is intriguingly flexible, transforming itself through various fermentation methods.  Or maybe it is so exciting because it offers Texas winemakers a tool with which to create deep, heavy reds.  In any case, my heart flutters a little each time it’s mentioned, curious about what might be possible as different growers, and different winemakers, try their hand at its potential.

Originally from the Madiran AOC in Southwestern France, Basque Country, it goes by the same name as the appellation.  In this region, the tannins of Tannat can come out in full strength, overpowering many of the other grape’s characteristics.  Because of this, it is often blended with other varieties, like Cabernet Franc.  It was here, and because of Tannat, that micro-oxygenation was invented as a technique to help round out the wine and soften its tannic structure.  In Uruguay, it is called Harriague and is now considered the national grape.  Still powerful on the vine, wine makers employ various types of fermentation practices to soften its gripping finish, including shortened exposure to the skins and numerous pips, which account for much of its tannic nature.  But in Texas, this characteristic celebrated and provides great possibility for flexibility.

Applause to the sun and heat for naturally softening the tannins on the vine.

Usually a drawback when it comes to growing grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, this phenomenon enables Texas winemakers to play with Tannat’s more delicate qualities, its undertones of raspberry, chocolate and subtle red floral notes.  Throughout this year’s research, I encountered three Texas wineries that were investing in Tannat, dedicated to discovering its potential.

The first is Westcave Cellars, where my eyes were opened.  Allan Fetty, part-owner, vineyard manager and winemaker at Westcave is focused on creating clean, balanced, heavy red wines, and had the foresight to plant Tannat in their vineyard.  I tried their Estate Tannat blended with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and couldn’t believe its weight on the palate and grip on the finish.  It had marvelous complexity of cherries and red plum, highlighted by a slight herbaceous quality.   A perfect steak wine.  You don’t meet many Texas reds like this.  I am sad to report it has already sold out.  But his 2011 is currently aging, and gives the Texas wine drinker something to look forward to.

The second was with Les Constable and Rachel Cook at Brushy Creek.  Les, the ever experimenter, is moving forward slowly with the grape.  He believes in discovering what a varietal can “bring to the party,” unaided, and ages them all unoaked first.  His unoaked Tannat is now blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo in their Three Friends wine, adding weight and structure.  And Rachel is currently playing with it in French oak, testing its flexibility.  I tried some, thieved from the barrel, and was delighted by its more gentle underpinnings of dried red fruit, melded with hints of vanilla from the toast.  It will easily be a stand-alone varietal.  I believe it’s one of the grapes that will truly showcase Rachel’s natural talents.

And the last, and perhaps most known for Tannat, is Bending Branch Winery.  Here John Rivenburgh and his father-in-law Robert Young, are exploring various techniques of both growing and fermenting the variety.  In the vineyard, John is head-training the vines, growing them without wires, encouraging the canopy into a goblet shape.

Like Mouvedre, Tannat’s cordons, or branches, naturally grow upward and are a perfect candidate for this Roman method.  And in the winery, they are playing with two styles of fermentation.  The first is just called “Regular Fermentation” and is denoted by “RF” on the bottle.

The juice sits with the skins and seeds until fermentation is complete, then the wine is placed in barrels to age.  The second is “Extended Maceration,” marked with “EM” on the label.  This technique involves keeping the Tannat on its skins and pips 30 days after fermentation is complete, followed, then by barrel aging.  Side by side, these bottles taste very different.  Regular fermentation results in a very masculine wine- rich, deep, tannic, heavy in the mouth.  And extended maceration brings out the grapes’ feminine qualities- the floral notes, soft vanilla and hints of raspberry.  I had to taste them repeatedly, amazed by the comparison.   

There’s more to come.  Barking Rocks Winery and Red Caboose Winery and Vineyard are planting Tannat, as well as Vijay Reddy and a handful of other High Plains growers.  Another grand step in the discovery of Texas terrior, this grape is worth watching.

Margaret Shugart

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education in Texas tasting rooms

After finishing this edition’s tour of Texas wineries, I have headed to France for the summer to lead cycling trips with an active touring company.  Luckily and blissfully, this assignment starts in Provence and the Southern Rhône where we travel through Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beames-de-Venise, as well as lesser known Rhône Villages and parts of Ventoux.

I won’t write much about France in this venue because this blog is about Texas and the people we meet with the book, but I would like to take note of my first visit to the wineries in the region and here’s why: they are not so different from Texas.  In fact, it was drinking wine at tasting rooms in Texas that helped me understand what is happening here, more so even than if I had spent this time in Napa Valley, or maybe anywhere else in the United States.  The more I learn, the more I believe Texas is, quite simply, more like Europe than anywhere else in the country (and for many more reasons than just the varieties grown).

The steward of the first tasting room I entered in Gigondas sorted through my strangely accented French to offer an English interaction, which was fortunate because his bi-lingual wine terminology was much better than mine.  I asked a lot of questions, similar to ones I ask when meeting with Texas wine makers and grape growers, and he was just as eager to talk about it as anyone.

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I was shown maps of microclimates, given explanations of terroir and blending techniques across different vineyards, enlightened on different vine training techniques that echoed what I learned at home.  For example, here in the Rhône, Mouvedre is head-trained (a Roman technique where vines are taught to grow upward with no wires, so that they look like goblets) because its cordons naturally reaches toward the sky and because the technique produces better fruit… just like Tannat, also head-trained by Bending Branch Winery.

Head trained Mourvedre in Gigondas, France

John Rivenburgh explains head trained Tannat vines and Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas

The education I received from wise Texas wine folk like Bobby Cox helped me understand why blending grapes from various microclimates adds layers of complexity to a wine.  And pioneers like Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery helped me understand why setting up a vine library is a good start to a vineyard, or even something to maintain for the entire life of someone’s estate.

And when the wine steward and I got more comfortable, he tested me on a white blend in which I identified 2 of the three grapes (Viognier and Roussane, missing Grenache Blanc) because these grapes are little rockstars in our state and I have tasted very true renderings of their character by our own wine makers.

I am not saying this to brag on myself.  Anyone could do this.  I am saying this to point out something marvelous about Texas tasting rooms: they are educational venues, opening visitors to world wines.  As the pioneering minds of the Texas wine industry are broadening their plantings past the big California three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay) and honing in on what this climate and soil can best support, we are being exposed to a vast array of varieties somewhat novel to the American palate, and pronunciation: Tempranillo (think Spanish- does not rhyme with armadillo), Mourvedre, Tinta Cao, Carignane, Cinsault, Vermentino, Albariño, Aliagnico, Dolcetto, etc.  They are beginning to increase in popularity and notoriety because they grow well here and show beautifully from our soil.   And because of this happy trend, Texas tasting rooms are putting them into people’s mouths, both to drink and to say.  This, I believe, is educating our visitors to a much wider world of taste and understanding, tapping Texas wine tourists into a global market, in a way I don’t think even most of California can do.

At the end of my lovely visit with this Gigondas winery, I explained that I was from Texas and interested in wine there, too.  The steward said he had actually met several Texans who visited his tasting room, and that they knew quite a bit about the Gigondas varieties.  Perhaps they studied on their own, but I like to think they had exposure to local renditions as well, and took that knowledge abroad to explore the grapes further.

So my challenge to you, good drinker, is to visit a local winery or two and go for the grape variety you’ve never heard of, then ask your wine stewardess a little about its background.  It’ll take you on a journey around the world through your taste buds.  I think you’ll be delighted at how much there is to learn here at home.

Margaret Shugart

faces of the next generation

Some faces of the new generation of Texas Wine:

Nolan Newsom in his new Mouvedre vineyard, 2 acres and 1/4 mile long. Poised to take on the tradition of beautiful High Plains fruit. Today he will help host and educate at Newsom Grape Day in Plains, Texas, one of the biggest gatherings of grape growers in the state.

J.P. St. Charles, barista at Times Ten Cellars, understudy at Inwood Estates Winery, determined future winemaker. Just planted his first vines in east Texas. His response to a question about the next generation of Texas wine?- “Oh look out, it’s coming.”

Grayson Davies of Arché. First graduate of Texas Tech University's four year viticulture and enology program and new winemaker with his family's vineyard and winery.

Evan McKibben and his father Gary McKibben (and Buddy the dog) at Red Caboose Winery and Vineyard. Evan won one of the precious few awards at the Jefferson Cup last year, the only winery in Texas to do so.

Rachel Cook with her mentor, winemaker and nuclear physicist, Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards where she is now winemaker and vineyard manager. Two great minds pushing the envelope on Texas wine.

On right: John Rivenburgh (director of wine and vine ninja) with his father-in-law, Robert Young at Bending Branch Winery. Two great experimenters dedicated to growing organic grapes and building a sustainable family business based on clean, quality, serious Texas wines.

Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, smiling as usual. Ask him about his craft though, and it's no joke. He is set to blow the doors off Texas wine.

Miles Elsey, cellar hand and assistant winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, passionate student of the industry.

Craig Pinkley relaxing in one of the many beautiful spots at his Pilot Knob Vineyards and Winery. Craig believes in running a family friendly winery, dedicated to bringing people together to enjoy the place and each other.

Rachel Cook

One idea behind this blog was not to post anything that might appear in the book, just stories around the wineries.  But this girl is just too amazing not to talk about in two places.

Rachel Cook, thiefing. And, yes, she is that close to the ceiling because she just climbed up a shelf of barrels.

And besides, it’s her birthday.

Miss Rachel Cook, winemaker of Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery in Alvord, Texas.

She’s 28 years old today.  And it’s her 6th year of working at the winery.  But she’s been around it since she was 8 years old, when her mother worked in the vineyard.  Six years ago she started volunteering with bottling and, as she jokes, Les, (her mentor, owner of Brushy Creek, and original winemaker) tried to send her home, tried to get rid of her, but she just kept coming back.  Truly though, Les recognized her talent and ambition and encouraged her to continue with school and increase her skills.

Les Constable, owner and winemaker at Brushy Creek, explaining one of his many experiments.

Now she’s trained in viticulture and enology from the T.V. Munson Center at Grayson County College, one of the few accredited programs in the country.  And she’s a natural.  As Les’ mother, Dorothy, told me, “Rachel has what we call good taste buds.”  Les says she can pick up all the nuances in a wine, just on scent.

I believe them.  Her wines are fantastic.  Fine.  Wines with complexity, that change in your mouth from start to finish.  She manages the estate vineyard too, in addition to several other vineyards that supply the winery.  And she mentors other winemakers in the region, lending instruction and advice.  As one man told me, “She’s young enough to be my daughter,” but a great winemaker and he goes to her for guidance.  “Rachel is a really smart girl.”

Since the beginning of this research, I’ve been fascinated by the next generation of the Texas wine industry, people in their 20’s and 30’s who are eager to push Texas wine forward.  Rachel is the first girl I’ve met of that group, and she is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and a blessing to the industry.  She and Les make an incredible team, playing off each other ideas, learning from each other.  And it makes for fantastic quality.

Happy birthday, Rachel!  My guess is you’ll be in the vineyard, working with the vines you love.  Can’t wait to see what comes of them, and you, this year.

Rachel Cook and Les Constable in front of Brushy Creek Winery