Tannat in Texas vs. the World

So, yes, I am a little obsessed with Tannat.  Oh and this link too.  And this one.  A little French varietal named for its massive tannic structure, this grape fills in a lot of gaps in the Texas wine demand.

Here’s what I mean by that: most Texas (and American in general) wine drinkers are trained on California wine, and continue their explorations at home with those expectations in mind.  Working in a tasting room and talking to many winemakers and attendants, it was evident that customers were in search for wines like the big, bold, fruity Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa.  Although there are some fine examples of those here in the state, truth is we grow much more European-style wines with restrained fruit and solid minerality.  And lighter reds.  Sun and heat bleach tannins on the vine and it’s difficult to develop very tannic grapes in our terroir.  Although light reds are fabulous reds, and I personally adore the complexities of a less tannic mouth-experience, winemakers still feel the pressure to produce bigger wines to satisfy those palates.

Enter Tannat.  Mr. Tannin.  In Madiran, the region where it’s grown most in France, winemakers treat the grape to a series of practices to soften those tannins, like micro-oxygenation and shortened exposure to the skins and numerous pips.  The same is true for Harriague, the name for Tannat in Uruguay.  Here in Texas, the grape sees opposite treatment.  It often experiences extended maceration and extra time on the skins, to help those tannins really shine forth.  Winemakers can then use it to boost other wines in a blend, or show it off by itself and gather lots of attention.  It is sold out in many tasting rooms across the state.  See why I’m excited?  This grape has so much potential.

And here comes the great news: all these examples of Tannat are available to taste, all at the same place, with guidance and education from trained sommeliers.

GUSTO Tastings is showcasing Tannat in their Texas vs. The World tasting here in Austin this Tuesday, March 26th, starting 7:30pm at Malaga Tapas and Bar.  The planned flights are listed below and include 16 wines (with rumors of a few bonus bottles as well), plus cheese plates and tapas for snacks.  There are just a few tickets left and I recommend registering now. It will be an incredible opportunity to try a wide variety of examples of the grape and get yourself educated on the next big thing in Texas!

– Margaret Shugart

Old World- Flight 1

  1. Chateau Barrejat, Madiran, 2009
  2. Domaine du Moulie, Madiran, 2009

New World (South & North America)- Flight 2 & 3

  1. Pueblo del Sol, Juanico, Tannat Rose, 2011
  2. Don Pascual, Juanico, ‘Roble’ Tannat, 2007
  3. Bodegas Carrau, Cerro Chapeu, Amat, Tannat, 2005
  4. Bouza, Montevideo, Tannat, 2009
  5. Giménez Méndez, Canelones, Tannat, ‘Las Brujas’, 2010
  6. Pisano, Progreso, Arretxea, Grand Reserve, Tannat Blend, 2006
  7. Intipalka, Ica Valley, Tannat, 2009
  8. Fin Del Mundo, Patagonia, Tannat, 2009
  9. Rock Wall Wine Co., California, Tannat, ‘The Palindrome’, 2010

Texas – Flight 4

  1. Brushy Creek Vineyards, Texas, Tannat Rose, 2011
  2. Westcave Cellars, Texas Hill Country, Tannat, 2010
  3. Brushy Creek Vineyards, Texas, Tannat, 2010
  4. Brushy Creek Vintage, Texas, Tannat, ‘Rachel’s Reserve’, 2009

Bending Branch Winery – Flight 5

  1. Bending Branch Winery, Texas, Tannat Rose, 2012- Tank Sample
  2. Bending Branch Winery, Texas, Tannat, NV
  3. Bending Branch Winery, Texas Hill Country, Tannat Reserve, 2010
  4. Bending Branch Winery, California, Tannat Port, 2009
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Cowboys and Gauchos

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The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas is gearing up for their annual Cowboys and Gauchos event at the Salt Lick in Driftwood this Sunday, February 24th.  It’s bound to be a great party celebrating the overlap between South American and Texan food and wine.  Foundation board member Howard Kells was so inspired by Francis Mallmann’s book, The Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentinian Way, he started the event as a way to taste Texas and South American grilling styles and wines side by side, and celebrate their unique cultures.  It is the Foundation’s top event for supporting Texas wines.

Chefs from restaurants around the Austin area including Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Fore, Live Oak BarbecueEstancia Churrascaria, Sentelli’s Sweets, Cafe Josie, El Alma and El Chile, will be cooking local meat using a wide variety of barbeque techniques like iron rig, iron crosses and parrilla.  Since it’s difficult to marinate or brine large animals, the Foundation and chefs search for an beast that will bring flavor and sweetness to the table after being cooked on a live fire.  This year, under the guidance of Jack Gilmore from Jack Allen’s Kitchen, they chose a Nilgai Antelope from a Hill Country ranch and will be offering samples after its long roast.

Alongside this incredible smorgasbord will be wines from all over South America and Texas.  Distributors specializing in South American wines will pour samples from their wineries, and winemakers and representatives from Texas will be on site talking about their bottles.  Participating local wineries include Pedernales Cellars, Becker Vineyards, Fall Creek Vineyards, Flat Creek Estate, McPherson Cellars, Spicewood Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, William Chris Vineyards, and Cap*Rock Winery.  It will be an incredible opportunity to compare varietals like Tannat (the national wine of Uruguay and my favorite red varietal in Texas), Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from the different regions, paired with barbecued game meat and other culinary specialties like homemade chorizo, beef tongue, wild boar tacos and bison chile.

In addition to all this tasting goodness, there will be a dance floor and live band for some twirling, and a raffle with a grand prize tour of the Hill Country valued at $3000.

Tickets are on sale now through The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas site and entry gets you into the best party around this weekend.

We’ll see you there!

Margaret Shugart

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

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