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.