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Tannat: The Past and the Future

Brecon Estate Tannat

Tannat’s one of those weird grapes that doesn’t fit in any of our standard categories.  It isn’t from Bordeaux, it isn’t from the Rhone.  It’s also not Pinot, not Portugese, Spanish or Italian.  It’s an obscure French grape, which is slightly amazing that such a thing can even exist these days.

Video Transcription:

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I’m joined today with a bottle of Tannat. This is Brecon Estate and we’ll get to that in a second but Tannat’s kind of an interesting story. The grape’s ancestral home is somewhere in Southwestern France kind of at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains. Kings in the area would use the thing as payment in taxes in the 17th and 18th century. But I think the interesting part is that this grape is literally not really grown in France all that much anymore. There’s a few small villages where they still kind of specialize in it in the region, but really the story of Tannat comes from Uruguay, and Uruguay has become something of a national grape. There’s a few South American countries that have kind of taken French grapes that are a little bit more obscure and turned them into what they’re known for. You’ve seen that kind of happen on a few occasions, with Argentina probably being the best example.

But Tannat. How did this end up even in the United States? It’s kind of a fascinating story. Tablas Creek is in Paso Robles and Tablas Creek has kind of long been thought of as one of the pioneers in bringing Rhone varietals to the United States and really kind of espousing on how Rhone varietals can work in certain soil conditions in certain climates. Tannat’s not a Rhone, though, so how did Tablas Creek end up with it in the first place? They were buying cuttings from a French farmer for a long time, and in the early 90’s they kind of got this huge set of cuttings. And if you’re not familiar, the US Agricultural Department actually quarantines cuttings. They don’t want to bring in phlox or other pests or anything else with the cuttings, so it often can take years from the time that your cuttings come from an overseas vendor into the United States before they’re released to you.

Brecon Estate Tannat Back LabelThe story is kind of told that the folks at Tablas Creek were looking into what they had with the USDA, and they saw this kind of strange varietal that’s not a Rhone, Tannat, and they thought the guy had probably made a mistake. The conversation kind of went, “Why did you send that? You know that’s not a Rhone, what are we supposed to do with it?” And the response as something along the lines of, “If you try it, I think you’ll like it, and I think it will work from what I’ve heard about Paso’s soil and heat and all that kind of stuff.”

So after they had everything kind of planted out in the vineyard, they took an acre and they planted that Tannat. And you know, Tannat’s kind of an interesting grape. It’s this extremely thick skin, and the tannins of it can be truly out of control. There’s French winemakers, and even winemakers in Paso, now, that will actually cut Tannat with Cabernet Sauvignon because that lightens it up so much. So that kind of tells you a little bit. So it’s a very, very thick-skinned grape, but acidity, though, stays high. So it’s a high pH grape, too. In Paso, it works really well because you have these thick skins which help prevent kind of mildew and some of the other issues that you run into if stuff has to hang on the vine for a long time. It grows well, but not out of control. That’s the big problem with Grenache that everybody will tell you. If you put Grenache in something that’s a little too sunny, you could get 10 tons per acre, which makes terrible wine. Tannat, if you put in the exact same growing conditions, you might only get three.

So that’s one thing that they found in Tablas Creek, so Tablas Creek now has I think three or four acres of it, in total. Now they’re kind of creating their own Tannat varietal specific wine like this at Brecon Estate. I think the true story of how Tablas Creek has influenced the wine industry, though, has helped, it’s told, at least a little bit by Tannat, because there’s now almost 600 acres planted in state of California. Almost every single acre of that is from a cutting from Tablas Creek. You know, they really did the work of bringing it into country waiting. You know, that’s a huge investment, and now you have all these other wineries that are able to take Tablas Creek cuttings and plant their own vineyard without the quarantine time.

So it’s a thick skin, so this is a very, very acidic grape for how dense it is. And it’s extremely tannic. It’s something that reminds people a lot of a Rhone, but it has a huge advantage in that, in warm conditions like Paso, and Paso is warm, at least in comparison to say the Sonoma Coast, it doesn’t overproduce, and it’s not affected by mildew and some of the other issues of if stuff has to hang on the vine for a long time in California, we often have rain in October and November, so that becomes a big problem. So Tannat actually is a mid-year ripener, so you’re looking at often harvests at the end of September or early October, as opposed to later into October, if it was a late ripener. So something that grows well here, I think it’s something that you’re going to see more often.

This Brecon Estate bottling is, I think typical for what you would find. It’s really well done. The challenge for wine makers with Tannat is to keep the tannin under control, and there’s a few steps that they can take, from open top fermenting, from adding it to maybe say not new oak barrel but a neutral oak barrel. The interesting thing for a varietal that’s not grown that much, and 600 acres sounds like a huge number to those of us that live on a 5,000 square foot lot, which is considered big, in itself. But 600 acres in state of California doesn’t give you all that much space to kind of experiment and try and figure out what the grape is all about. So we’re going to continue to hear about this.

I think Tannat’s one of those grapes that is likely to gain plantings as time goes by, and that’s because, as cooler climate vineyard sites have increasingly been planted out, we’re left to look at warmer vineyard sites, and you can’t grow Cab or Pinot or frankly even Grenache in a lot of them, because Grenache overproduces, Cab doesn’t get ripe, Pinot is so overripe that it’s disgusting, et cetera, et cetera. Tannat’s something that grows and grows well in warmer sites, so I think you’re going to see that continue to increase in plantings in Paso. I think there’s a lot of other parts of the central coast that you’re going to see those. Frankly, I think there’s a lot of Mendocino sites that would do well with Tannat, and I think the state of Washington is an obvious, obvious spot to see it do well, let alone southern Oregon road valley.

So in any way, I hope everyone’s having a good week so far, and we’ll talk to you soon.

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