In conversations with friends and family about what wines they plan to serve with holiday meals in the next few weeks, all the usual suspects show up: Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a pile of vague Chardonnay, and the occasional Riesling. I was surprised that a few folks broke ranks with the possibility of Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino, and there was even one mention of Cabernet Franc. Knowing that a number of them are real bargain hunters who enjoy learning about wine, and that most of them favor big, dark reds, the kind with tannins strong enough to pucker a mouth closed, I was surprised that nobody mentiond Tannat.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so suprised after all. Most winedrinkers I know, avid, daily consumers, never mention this amazing grape. I wonder how many even know it exists. If you’ve never heard of Tannat, here’s a quick and dirty background on it, just enough to put you on the trail. With a little bit of work, you might be able to treat yourself and your holiday companions to something new this season.
Tannat, as the name implies, is a dark, thick-skinned grape capable of producing powerfully rough and tannic wines. The principal grape in France’s southwest appellation of Madiran, which produces the finest wines in Gascony, Tannat is believed to be originally from the Basque region; in fact, in the miniscule appellation of Irouléguy near the Pyrenees on the border with Spain, this vigorous vine produces refreshing, sometimes elegant wines, including a few popular pink bottlings.
The British wine writer Hugh Johnson describes Tannat as “Raspberry-perfumed, highly tannic force behind Madiran, Tursan, and other firm reds from southwest France. Also rosé. Now the star of Uruguay.” Indeed.
Similar to Malbec, a grape whose role in Bordeaux and Cahors has diminished in recent decades but which has flourished in Argentina, Tannat has become an almost entirely different wine in the warmer climates of the New World. Also known in Uruguay as Harriague, the name of its original grower there, it is widely grown, and modern techniques have developed to tame its rustic power, including blending with pinot noir and merlot, and controlling fermentation and maceration processes in a more precise and technical manner. Tannat is grown in small amounts in Argentina, but has seen more and more production in the last decade in California. In fact, Alameda’s own Rock Wall Wine Company has shown consistent improvement with this once indomitable variety. Their 2009 bottling of “The Palindrome” is an excellent example of a modern, accessible Tannat. Aromatic, lush, with elements of cocoa, coffee, and blackberries, it closes with a light, but lingering finish, its tannins fine and polished. Priced under $20, it’s a steal. In fact, a quick look at my own cellar shows six bottles (now five!) and the average price is $19. If you’re looking for a change, or for a special holiday bottle, and you prefer a red wine with a bit of backbone, then Tannat might be just the wine you’re looking for. Who knows — this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.