Until recently most Aussie wine drinkers were unaware of the native Basque red variety called, Tannat. It is a thick skinned variety which has very high levels of tannins and produces deeply coloured wines with massive structure.
Even those who have drunk it would probably have been unaware of it, as in France, where it is mostly grown these days, with around 3,000 hectares planted, Tannat is not varietally named. Instead, the wines made from it are simply called, Madiran, after the village where it comes from in the Hautes-Pyrénées department in the south-west of France.
Historically the red wines of Madiran have been herculean monsters which were unapproachable until they were at least ten years or even better, between 15 to 30 years old. As youngsters these wines were so aggressive that they would tear your palate out and ram it down your throat for good measure.
In more recent times, the more progressive of the Madiran winemakers have been blending in some Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc in order to control their beasts and make them more approachable to mere mortals when the wines are younger. Can you imagine using Cabernet Sauvignon to tone down/soften red wine? Not an image that comes readily to mind, like say Merlot would.
The other place in the world where Tannat has been produced for a long time is the beautiful small South American country of Uruguay. Located on the opposite (northern) side to Argentina, of the massively wide Rio de la Plata. Uruguay is a small country, covering just some 176,000 square kilometres and having a population smaller than Melbourne’s.
This tiny country is the fourth largest wine producer in South America and has been producing wine in its humid temperate climate since 1870 when Spaniard, Don Pascual Harriague, brought Tannat cuttings into the country. The variety did so well in Uruguay’s climate that it became the country’s predominant variety and until recently was usually called, ‘Harriague’, rather than Tannat.
Thus whilst most Tannat is planted in France, Uruguay has become the “spiritual home” of Tannat, just like Chile is for Carménère, Argentina for Malbec and Australia for Shiraz. There are currently vines planted in all but four of the country’s nineteen regions (departments), mainly to the north of the capital city of Montevideo. The major wineries however are located in the region of Canelones, to the south of the capital. Most of Uruguay’s wine is produced by smaller family run estates which means more TLC and more uniqueness in style.
Uruguay produces around 70 million litres of wine from approximately 6,500 hectares of vineyards. Being big drinkers, most of their wine is consumed domestically, but in recent time Uruguay has started exporting some of their national treasure to the rest of the world.
Due to the climate in Uruguay, Tannat produces a much more approachable wine there than what it does in Madiran. While Uruguay is around the same latitude as South Africa, Australia and Argentina, giving it bountiful sunshine and warmth, it is the only country in South America producing wines near the Atlantic Ocean. The cold winds coming up from the Antarctic create cooler temperatures along the coast which helps to retain the acidity levels in the grapes, thereby producing bright, fresh wines.
I encountered Uruguayan Tannat while judging at the 2017 World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam and they were all very good wines, with one in particular being superb and achieving a gold medal in this tightly fought contest. It was this wine that inspired me to revisit this variety.
The Uruguayan Tannat that were in our tasting line-up, were supplied by Untapped Wines www.untappedwines.com.au for this article included:
- GARZÓN TANNAT RESERVA 2017 from the Garzón Region of Uruguay – a very elegant wine without the obvious BIG tannins one expects from Tannat.
VIÑEDO DE LOS VIENTOS ‘ANARKIA’ TANNAT 2016 from the Atlántida Region –made with wild yeast, no sulphurs, funky aromas and a tight, complex palate. Enjoyable but quite a different style.
- DON PRÓSPERO TANNAT 2016 from the Canelon Chico Region – another elegant wine with gentle aromas a just hint of caramel on the front palate, with svelte tannins on the finish.
- BODEGAS CARRAU TANNAT RESERVA 2011 from the Las Violetas Region – a soft, gentle, svelte wine with the characteristic varietal tight, grippy finish.
- VIÑEDO DE LOS VIENTOS ANGEL’S CUVEE RIPASSO de TANNAT 2017 from the Atlántida Region – made from cane cut partly dried grapes. A big concentrated wine as one would expect, some raisiny characters on the smooth, rich palate with an extra bite. Excellent.
There were two other Uruguayan wines but unfortunately they were “corked” (TCA affected).
In Australia, Tannat has been quietly expanding since the turn of the century. In the seven years since I first wrote about the variety, the number of producers has risen by 45 per cent to 32. Sure, that is not many out of a population of 2,500 wineries, but it shows that the interest and excitement for this BIG, rich variety is well underway.
The Australian Tannat tasting started out with:
- Two tank samples of the 2018 and 2016 Bago Vineyard (Wauchope, NSW) Tannat, to compare with their current release, Bago Vineyard Tannat 2014. All three wines were made in a lower alcohol (under 13%), less monstrous style, therefore while still deep in colour and highly aromatic, they are more approachable whilst young than the mainstream Tannat wines are. The two younger vintages were particularly excellent and will shine when released.
- Just Red Wines (Granite Belt, Queensland) Tannat 2016 – the cooler climate was evident in the tighter, more reserved flavours. A great wine that like most of the others, needs some time to round out and soften off.
- Coolangatta Estate (Shoalhaven, NSW) Tannat 2016 and 2014 – ably demonstrated what a difference even a couple of year’s maturation can make to Aussie Tannat. With the 2014 being just that little bit softer, rounder and smoother than its younger sibling. Both have a long and satisfying life in front of them.
- Tizzana Vineyards (Hawkesbury, NSW) ‘Portland Head’ 2016 and 2014 Tannat – like the Bargo Tannat these two wines were in the “newer”, slightly lighter style, made softer for more current consumption than the ‘traditional’ style Tannat. Very approachable. In comparison their blend, Tizzana Vineyards ‘Clarissa’ Shiraz / Tannat / Petit Verdot 2016, is a bigger style wine but due to the Shiraz predominance, it is not overly tannic. Instead it is smooth, rich and hearty with great balance.
- Hand Crafted by Geoff Hardy Adelaide Hills Tannat 2016 – Wow! This wine shows elegance and sophistication, is deeply coloured, has lively aromas with big, smooth, rich flavours and not too tannic. Very classy!
- Pirramimma McLaren Vale Tannat, vintages 2015, 2012 and 2004 – three out of the four vintages of Tannat ever released by Pirramimma, the only one missing was the 2010. All are big, bold wines. The 2015 being ubber tight and restrained. The 2012 was a bit ‘porty’ and just starting to soften off. Their first vintage was the 2004 and this was sublime having mellowed and softened off so that it feels like a very young, big bodied Shiraz at this stage. Eons of life ahead for this Superb wine, which for me sets the bench mark for Tannat in Australia.
- Symphonia (King Valley, Vic) Tannat 2013 – a cool climate wine with herbal, tobacco and dark fruit aromas. A delicious, very drinkable “lighter” style Tannat which will age well.
- Topper’s Mountain (New England, NSW) ‘Wild Ferment’ Tannat 2013 – one out of “left field”. This natural yeast fermented, this wine is tremendous with a funky bouquet, unlike any of the others, a palate with masses of complex flavours making it rich and seductive. Not typical of the variety but a divine wine!!
- Hither & Yon (McLaren Vale) ‘Old Jarvie the Widow Maker’ Tannat/Cabernet/Petit Verdot 2015 – an interesting blend softened off slightly by the Cabernet. Very smooth and drinkable now.
All the Aussies were quality wines that would impress in a blind line up with other varieties. However, personally I prefer the BIG powerhouse style of Tannat after they have been given the appropriate amount of time to come of age. Likewise, I would love to see what Tannat is capable of producing in the Riverland, as I think the variety has significant/massive potential in the Riverland’s warm climate.
Finally, we had one French Madiran wine out of my cellar:
- the outstanding, Château Montus Madiran 2001, which at eighteen years old has just about hit its straps and is opening up enough to be divine. It was deep, dark and dense in colour with lovely plumy fruit flavours and just a hint of aniseed. It was a very classy big/huge wine which still has masses of tannins and will continue to evolve for at least another decade.
It was truly magnificent and supports my “wait, wait and wait some more” philosophy.
So if you enjoy big rich red wines, buy some bottles of Tannat and exercise a bit of patience. If you don’t have a cellar or a temperature controlled wine fridge, just chuck the bottles into a dark cupboard for two to four years and you won’t be disappointed, because “Tannat is Terrific”.
About Dan Traucki | Director, wine Assist, Member Wine Century Club | With almost 30 years experience in the wine industry, after having started out life as an accountant, Dan Traucki, director of Wine Assist, has a broad depth of knowledge of the wine industry. Email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org This article was published in Australia’s Wine Business Magazine (March/April 2019 issue).