When an imposing, muscular grape like Tannat emerges on the scene, it’s worth approaching with healthy curiosity.

PHOTOS BY AUDREY KELLY“Go big or go home” is not typically a winemaker’s mantra. There are plenty of bold, domineering wines on the market, of course, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Syrah to Petite Verdot. But most vintners reach for a little subtlety, a touch of elegance in their wines. So when an imposing grape like Tannat emerges on the scene, it’s worth approaching with healthy curiosity.

The Tannat grape originated in the Madiran AOC in southwestern France and has become a favorite of winemakers in Uruguay, where it thrives in vineyards planted in the late 19th century by Basque immigrants. In more recent years, it has taken hold in a few vineyards around Paso Robles in California and is pushing its way up the coast to the Pacific Northwest. A handful of winemakers here have been bottling Tannat since the early 2000s, creating a style all their own with this muscular grape.

Tannat’s name is its calling card — in fact, it spawned the word “tannin.” With thick, dark skin and five seeds in each grape — instead of the three occurring in most varieties — Tannat can produce a wine that acts more like a bruiser than a polite dinner guest. Over the years, winemakers in both France and South America have refined their methods with this grape, using techniques like micro-oxygenation to soften the wine. But the big mouth-feel yielded by the abundant tannins is still a defining trait of much of the Tannat produced in France.

So when April Reddout encountered a Tannat from Bartholomew Winery at Taste Washington last year, she approached it carefully. As the wine program director at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, April works with winemakers from all over Washington, seeking bottles that highlight the best the state has to offer, while educating customers in the tasting room about a wide variety of wines and winemaking styles. She was familiar with Tannat, primarily bottlings from Uruguay. “They were off-putting, bold, and tannic,” she says. “It hit me that they would not be consumer-friendly.”

So she was curious to see what Bartholomew owner and winemaker Bart Fawbush could do with the variety.  What she found was a wine that became one of the top-sellers at the Clore Center’s tasting room. “I went out of my way to taste it because I had something to compare it to,” April says. “It was elegant and refined. It made a big impression on me.”

The winemaker says he almost stumbled onto the variety. His first taste came from a subscription wine club that was offering a Tannat from southern France. “I ordered two or three bottles, thinking it was a great wine for the price,” Bart says. “I did some research and thought it could be similar to my style: fruit forward, alcohol in check, acid in check, oak integrated but not over the top. I thought if I could get the chemistry right, that would give us a good starting point.”

His wine club’s response to his first vintage confirmed both his instincts and April’s enthusiasm — the entire production sold out in 30 days, through Bartholomew’s Seattle tasting room and wine club and through the Clore Center tasting room.

“Bart took a rough grape and made it very consumer-friendly,” April says. And he’s not alone. Today, a handful of Northwestern winemakers, from Oregon all the way north to Canada’s Okanagan, have also tamed the grape.

Byron Dooley bottles around four barrels of Tannat at Seven of Hearts winery in Carlton, Oregon. “Part of the reason it’s so exciting is that it’s so novel,” he says. “99.9 percent of the people coming into our tasting room have never heard of it. But when they try it, people just go gaga over this wine.”

Byron fell in love with Tannat after tasting a French producer’s line-up that ranged from an entry-level up to a single-vineyard bottling. He was enthralled. In 2012, he found a small block of the fruit at a vineyard in the Oregon stretch of the Columbia Valley. “My jaw just dropped,” he says. Byron contracted for the entire crop.

That first bottling, he acknowledges, was a little aggressive. “Everybody knows that in Bordeaux, they might use Merlot to soften Cabernet Sauvignon,” he laughs. “In Madiran, they use Cabernet to soften Tannat.” But the wine mellowed nicely, he adds, and the entire inventory quickly sold out at his tasting room.

Since then, Byron has refined his methods with the hearty grape, using a slow, cold fermentation along with a full two years of aging in oak barrels.  Because Tannat is one of the first grapes to ripen each season, it develops high sugars while retaining sturdy acids — the perfect recipe for long aging, both in the barrel and the bottle. The result is a wine that maintains a big mouth-feel while softening and rounding out flavors as it ages, yielding rich chocolate and berry notes, with lots of backbone and structure.

Go a little farther north to the Okanagan region, and you’ll find Tannat tucked in among the Tempranillo, Viognier, Dolcetto, and Carmenere at Moon Curser Vineyards in Osoyoos, British Columbia. “We’re not trying to be the champion of Tannat,” laughs owner and winemaker Chris Tolley. Half of his wines are white varietals and Rhone blends, and the other half is spread among unusual varieties like the Portuguese Touriga Nacional and Arneis, an Italian heirloom variety. He planted less than two acres to Tannat and produces only about 120 cases a year. The wine can be tricky, with wide variations in its flavor profile, from cool years to warmer years. And with its combination of high sugar, acid, and tannin, it often starts out like a linebacker.

“It can be a somewhat awkward wine in its youth,” Chris says. “It’s very mouth-filling and a somewhat curious wine when it’s young, very angular.” Chris watches malolactic fermentation carefully, taming the acids, and he, too, ages the wine for several years before bottling.

Tannat might sound a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but think of it more like a diamond polished out of the rough. Under the right hands, it can age from a strong-willed grape to a structured wine with smooth flavors and silky refinement. Both Seven of Hearts and Moon Curser Tannat were entered in the 2016 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, where wines must be nominated by a panel of sommeliers and wine judges to participate. Moon Curser’s Tannat has earned a string of awards, as well, including Best of Class in the 7th annual Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

“It has fairly intense sweet, inky characteristics when it’s young,” Chris says. “But as it ages, it loses some of that intensity and becomes quite a nice wine, with finesse to it. People quite enjoy it.”

Anne Sampson writes about wine, and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest.

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