Let’s Talk Tannat
Time for a little Tannat 101. Tannat is a red grape that grows in large bunches, though the berries themselves are small-ish in size. Tannat is a relatively “easy” grape to grow. Because of its thick skins, it’s less susceptible to frost and cold temperatures, diseases, and mildew. It’s also easy to manage; the grapevines are not prone to overproduction, so vineyard owners don’t need to constantly trim excessive fruit clusters nor any bushy greenery. The grape originates from the South West of France in the Madiran AOC, on the eastern side of the Pyrénées. Here, because of the mountainous terroir and extremely cool (often downright frosty) temperatures, the Tannat wine produced is characterized by its firm, tannic structure, full body, dark color, and high alcohol content. Accordingly, modern winemaking in the region has begun to emphasize the use of more new oak aging, spending at least 20 months in barrels before bottling.
But the truth is that there isn’t a lot of Tannat growing in France any longer. Instead, it’s Uruguay who’s taken over Tannat grape-growing and wine production. Here, the weather is warm and dry, but because of the proximity to the ocean, Tannat benefits from maritime air and marine-influenced soils (read: softer, well-drained soils). The affect on the wine: softer tannins, mellower acidity, and richer fruit notes. (Decanter has an interesting article about Uruguay’s wine production and focus on Tannat.)
But it’s not just South America who’s learned to tame the tannic beast. Here in America, certain parts of the West Coast seem well-suited enough to grow the hearty grape — from chilly, coastal California to some of Oregon’s warmest valleys.
Though it may seem that Tannat can grow anywhere, it’s interesting to see what different areas mean for grape growth and the unique ways our modern winemakers take a hand — or not — in shaping those resulting wines.
Tannat in California
While sturdy Tannat may seem like a winemaker’s dream, it is not a widely planted grape in California. There are around 250 acres planted to Tannat vines, making up less than .1% of the state’s entire wine production. It’s out there, though, often blended away in more common varietals like Cabernet Franc or Merlot. But there are a few brave souls who’ve opted to bottle a single-varietal expression: Tablas Creek, Westwood, and, my focus for this week-long study in Tannat, Y. Rousseau.
Yannick Rousseau, founder and winemaker of Y. Rousseau Wines, has his roots planted in Tannat’s native Gascony region of France. As such, it’s no wonder that the grape was one of the first Yannick worked with and one of his main productions at his eponymous Napa winery. He brings modern methods to the Old World techniques, having studied alongside “French Tannat guru” Alain Brumont, who Yannick credits for teaching him “the art of blending and a perfectionist approach to winemaking.”
Today, Y.Rousseau produces 3 Tannats — all single-vineyards, all sourced from different vineyards in different Northern California regions: Mendocino, Sonoma Valley, and Solano County. Each vineyard yields very different grapes in regards to both flavor and texture and thus each of the wines must be crafted in a way that best suits the specific location’s fruits. I would wager that Yannick’s ability (and maybe reasoning) to do so is due to his strong understanding of the innate rusticity of the grape, and his extensive training on how to finesse Tannat’s wild nature. The resulting wines from Y.Rousseau are altogether “Frenchy” — full-on flavor bombs meant to age well and enjoy with the rich dishes known to its heritage. And they make fantastic case-studies when learning about Tannat.
Tannat in Oregon
It’s no wonder the Tannat grape thrives in the Applegate Valley of Oregon. It is one of the warmer, drier regions of the Southern Oregon AVA, but is close enough to the Pacific Ocean to still enjoy a maritime climate. (Read more about Southern Oregon AVA.) The soils are mixed, depending on the region. Troon Vineyard, who I’ll also be looking at for this study in Tannat, is located on the higher, second bench of the Applegate River Valley and claim predominantly granitic soils. So, in the words of Craig Camp, General Manager of Troon Vineyard who takes great pride in the winery’s Tannat expression, the estate vineyard’s terroir “takes off just enough of that edge to reveal a distinctive Southern Oregon personality — all without taming its wilder side.”
Indeed it’s a bit of France meets Uruguay in this portion of the Applegate Valley — with the terroir doing the bulk of the work in regards to bringing a more fruit forward flavor and less tannic texture to the matured grapes. Thus, with Troon Vineyard, it’s all minimal intervention winemaking methods. An interesting juxtaposition to the more French-inspired Y.Rousseau.
Let’s Taste Tannat
Each day this week I’ll be featuring a different expression of Tannat from both Y.Rousseau and Troon Vineyard.
Y. Rousseau 2013 Alder Springs Vineyard Tannat “The Musketeer”
Troon Vineyard 2014 Estate Tannat
Y. Rousseau 2014 Russian River Valley Tannat
Troon Vineyard 2014 Malbec-Tannat Reserve
Y. Rousseau 2016 Rosé of Tannat
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