Age: Most should be drunk within a few years of the vintage, but those from Madiran in France are long lived and need additional time to soften their tannic structure.
Aka: Also known as Harriague in Uruguay.
Tannat (tah-nat) is a very old grape variety. It is believed to have originated in the Basque region of northwest Spain, but also has a centuries old association with Madiran in southwest France. In the late 19th century it was brought to Uruguay by Basque immigrants, where it flourished, and has since become the national red grape variety of the country.
It is a very easy grape to grow and, unlike many red varietals, it produces relatively low yields and therefore requires less vineyard management. Another positive attribute is the fact that it has good disease resistant properties. Tannat berries are small, giving the grapes a high skin-to-pulp ratio, which adds significant levels of tannin to the finished wine. The fact that Tannat grapes contain 5 seeds (pips) compared to 2 or 3 for most other varieties also adds to tannin levels. These tannins give the wines structure and aging potential.
Tannat makes big, masculine wines that, as the name suggests, are very high in tannin. Acidity and alcohol are also high and the body is very full. These robust wines display red and black fruit flavors of raspberry, plum and blackberry, combined with smoky and spicy notes. With age they can develop additional flavors of chocolate, coffee, tobacco and vanilla.
The impact of the high tannin has been reduced in recent years through a process known as “micro-oxygenation” which allows oxygen into the wine during fermentation. Oak aging also helps in this regard, as well as adding complexity and a vanilla flavor.
There are subtle differences between Tannat wines from France and those from Uruguay. Generally, those from Uruguay are softer in structure with less harsh tannins and deeper black fruit flavors. It is an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the characteristics for the wines from these two countries to fully appreciate their differences.
Tannat is a grape of admirable quality and is attracting increasing interest amongst wine lovers and winemakers alike. Outside of France and Uruguay, there are a small but growing number of plantings in California, led by the progressive Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles.
An interesting fact about Tannat is its reputed “Health Benefits” due to the fact that it contains the highest levels of procyanidins and the phenolic compound Resveratrol of any grape variety. They are thought to convey cardiovascular benefits by reducing cholesterol and lipid levels when wine is consumed in moderate quantities.
Quoted in support of this theory is the fact that the Gers department in southwest France (which includes the Madiran appellation) has double the national average of men aged 90-plus. This perhaps explains the “French Paradox”, which relates to the relatively low level of heart disease in France despite the consumption of a high level of saturated fat.
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