April 14 marks Tannat Day, an occasion that beckons aficionados of robust, full-bodied, and weighty red wines to turn their attention to the Tannat grape. Noteworthy is its gradual yet steadfast ascent in the global wine market over the past two decades.

Tannat’s defining characteristic lies in its exceptionally elevated tannin levels, a feature explicitly encapsulated in its nomenclature. Originating from its native terroir, Tannat traditionally found companionship in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, a strategic union that aimed to temper the assertive tannins inherent to Tannat. It’s noteworthy that both these Cabernet counterparts also exhibit a robust tannic profile, thereby distinctly shaping the overall character of Tannat.

Remarkably, Tannat boasts the highest concentration of phenolic compounds among well-known grape varieties. This distinction can be attributed to its thick skin and abundant pips, surpassing other varietals in this regard. These compounds double as antioxidants, positioning Tannat as anointed with the distinction of being the healthiest wine globally.

Beyond its formidable tannic presence, Tannat manifests a rich palette of pigments, acidity, and sugar, coalescing into a potent, full-bodied, and deeply hued (“black”) wine. Endowed with these characteristics, Tannat gracefully embraces the art of aging, responding with magnificence to the passage of time.

Originating in France, Tannat has uniquely evolved to become the hallmark grape of Uruguay, mirroring the trajectories of Malbec and Carmenere in Argentina and Chile, respectively. France, a prolific creator of grape varieties, has generously shared its viticultural legacy with the world.

The birthplace of Tannat is the French South-West, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a region steeped in viticultural history dating back to Roman times, if not earlier. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this locale supplied wines to the royal court, gaining renown for its exceptional quality and diverse offerings.

However, the annals of viticulture narrate a somber tale of business ruthlessness and injustice. Despite producing wines of superior quality and distinction compared to Bordeaux, the South-West succumbed to the dominance of Bordeaux due to strategic control over key ports and trade routes. Bordeaux, wielding economic leverage, suppressed the trade of South-West wines until their own stocks were depleted, cunningly amalgamating them with South-West produce to bolster their own wine quality. This subjugation, combined with the onslaught of the phylloxera epidemic, pushed the South-West’s viniculture to the brink of collapse, a plight from which it only began recovering at the close of the 20th century.

Returning to Tannat, in contemporary France, it predominantly thrives south of the Garonne River, with Madiranbeing the epicenter of French Tannat. In the late 20th century, as the South-West rejuvenated its winemaking, Madiran winemakers faced the challenge of adapting Tannat’s robust tannins to suit consumer palates accustomed to the softer nuances of Merlot or Syrah. Traditionally, oak barrel aging played a role in smoothing and rounding Tannat’s tannins by facilitating controlled oxidation.

In the forthcoming discourse, I shall expound the discerning role of oxygen in this enological symphony, particularly emphasizing the pivotal role played by oak barrels. Succinctly put, oxygen assumes a dual role in winemaking, acting both as a potential adversary and an indispensable ally. An excess of oxygen poses the risk of transforming ethanol into acetic acid, relegating the wine to a state of vinegar—an undesirable fate for any discerning connoisseur. Conversely, in measured quantities, oxygen engages in an oxidative metamorphosis of various compounds, imparting a wine with a nuanced and multifaceted taste profile. This delicate interaction is particularly crucial for the refinement of tannins, contributing to a velvety smoothness in the final product.

Traditionally, the oak barrel stands as the perfect instrument for controlling oxygen delivery. Beyond its function as a conduit for oxygen, the oak barrel enriches the vinous narrative in manifold ways—an aspect warranting dedicated exploration. Madiran traditionally aged its wine in oak barrels, a minimum duration of 20 months within the embrace of the barrel is deemed requisite for the aging process. However, it is not enough for hard Tannat’s tannins.

In 1990, Madiran winemaker Patrick Ducournau revolutionized this process by introducing micro-oxygenation (“microbullage”), a technique involving controlled oxygen saturation at various winemaking stages. This innovation significantly improved color stability, tannin refinement, and overall taste. Widely embraced, micro-oxygenation is now a standard practice not only in the South-West but also in Bordeaux and globally for high-tannin varieties.

The prestigious Madiran AC mandates a minimum of 60% Tannat in its wines, with optional additions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The success of micro-oxygenation has been so profound that there were discussions of increasing the minimum Tannat content to 80%, reflecting the exceptional results achieved by winemakers utilizing 100% Tannat.

Adjacent appellations such as Irouléguy, Tursan, and Béarn also specialize in Tannat, often blending it with both Cabernets. Beyond the confines of AOC regulations, the South-West offers ITG Tannat and even noteworthy examples under the Vin de France classification.

French Tannat is characterized by its robust nature, presenting as a dark, powerful wine with elevated tannins, acidity, and an aromatic profile dominated by red fruit, particularly strawberry, accompanied by subtle notes of tobacco, cinnamon, and wood.
Notably, the South-West crafts vibrant, full-bodied rosés from Tannat, further showcasing the versatility of this distinctive grape.

In 1870, Pascual Harriague, a Basque pioneer, embarked on a transformative journey from France to Uruguay, carrying with him the vines of Tannat. Planting these vines near Salto in the north of Uruguay, Harriague laid the foundation for Tannat’s ascendancy as the national grape variety of Uruguay. Presently, approximately 40% of all grapes in Uruguay are Tannat, with a significant 70% of the world’s Tannat cultivation thriving in Uruguayan soil, contrasting with France’s share of about 30%. For a long time, Tannat in Uruguay has existed under the name Harriague, in honor of its Uruguayan progenitor. In a poignant tribute, the National Vinicultura Institute of Uruguay designated April 14 as Tannat Day, commemorating the passing of Pascual Harriague in 1894 and recognizing the grape’s profound significance to the nation’s vinicultural heritage.

Over the course of 150 years, Uruguay’s warmer climate and the emergence of new clones have markedly altered the taste profile of Uruguayan Tannat in comparison to its French counterpart. While retaining its characteristic depth and full-bodied nature, Uruguayan Tannat exhibits reduced tannins and acidity. The predominant aroma is characterized by black fruits such as blackberry and black plum, complemented by nuanced notes of licorice, black chocolate, spices, and smoke. The taste profile leans towards fruitiness, emblematic of the New World style.

In Uruguay, Tannat frequently finds companionship with Pinot Noir and Merlot in blends, resulting in wines that are soft and fruit-forward.

The quality of Uruguayan wines has experienced a notable surge in the 21st century, propelling their presence on the global stage.

Beyond the realm of red Tannat, Uruguay is prolific in producing fruity rosés.

Approximately 80% of the world’s Tannat vines now thrive in Uruguay and France, while the remainder is dispersed among countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Australia, the USA, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, and South Africa, often employed in diverse blends.

When contemplating the ideal culinary companions for Tannat, its full-bodied and tannic nature makes it a superb pairing for high-protein, hearty dishes such as steak, beef cassoulet, roasted lamb, and duck confit—a perfect complement to the gastronomic traditions of Gascogne. Aged cheeses also find synergy with Tannat’s robust profile. For those embracing the lighter allure of Tannat rosé, it offers delightful solo sipping on a warm summer day but also harmonizes well with poultry, fish, and salads.


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