Vinexpo is a place where all encounters are possible. This year was unique for two reasons. Firstly because Madiran winemakers naturally tend to be rather discreet and had never before organised an event of this scale, secondly because it established a bridge between two continents around a grape variety that still lacks recognition on the world wine scene: the Tannat.
So, on the 22nd of June 2011, speakers were André Dominé, German journalist and Tannat connoisseur, Paula Pivel (Bodega Alto de la Ballena) and Daniel Pisano (Bodega Pisano) for Uruguay, Alain Brumont (Châteaux Montus and Bouscassé) and Olivier Bourdet-Pees (Plaimont Producteurs) for Madiran, to speak about the history of Tannat and the plurality of its expression through the diversity of its blends and lands.
The basis for this encounter is the legitimate alliance between Madiran and Uruguay
On one side, a country of 176 220 square kilometres on the American continent, on the other, an appellation barely covering 300 km² with its 1400 hectares of vineyards on the European continent… Yet, bringing these two regions together was more than auspicious. Above all because Uruguay and Madiran share almost exclusively the rare 3500 hectares of Tannat planted throughout the world, the meagre presence of this rare and demanding grape variety can be explained principally by the climatic conditions it requires.
Tannat is first mentioned in the Gers area in 1783. In 1870 almost 100 years later, Basque settler Pascal Harriague implanted Tannat in Uruguay. Since then, relationships have been maintained by winemaking professionals from the two areas, especially concerning technical and cultural aspects (health studies on land parcels, experimental protocol on approved clones to help winemakers choose which seedlings to use…). Bringing the two regions closer together is also important because they share the same wine culture: small family run enterprises, the quest for their own expression, a high level of local consumption that has long kept export and standardization at bay… This is quite a typical model for a small appellation like Madiran, but less so for a country like Uruguay, which displays very distinctive wine growing characteristics in relation to its South American neighbours.
Tannat, "New Challenger"
Madiran and Uruguay share the same battle for promoting this very singular grape variety which remains poorly known.
As pointed out by André Dominé, Tannat was sometimes discredited in France, especially during the 1970's in a postwar context along with changes in consumption patterns. Considered at the time as a "basic grape variety, overly tannic, bitter when young, marked by acidity and in need of improving varieties", following recommendations from the INAO technicians (National Institute for Origin and Quality) it was blended with Fer Servadou (local grape variety from the south west) or Cabernet, which are both easier to handle.
Today however, Tannat is on the crest of another wave, and it is as "new challenger" that Alain Brumont presented this grape variety, extolling its merits: a strong aging potential, when 90% of 20 year old wines are on the decline, characteristic freshness, an aspect that is today preferred over the notion of concentration; a self-sufficient variety, easily going without treatments such as acidification or chaptalisation; a flavour enhancer for a wide variety of foods, especially spicy cuisine...
Tannat, an Atlantic grape variety
There are few climates where Tannat can fully flourish. It is for this reason that Olivier Bourdet-Pees explains that it is often agreed that "Tannat chose Madiran and Uruguay". The two regions enjoy a maritime influence and record annual precipitations neighbouring 1000 mm. While it is true that South America has drawn from the South West's ampelographic heritage (Malbec, Tannat, Carnémère), according to him Tannat does not find favour in countries bordering Uruguay, such as Argentina.
Tannat, alone or in blending
In Madiran, the first blends of Tannat with other varieties occurred at a time when Tannat was undervalued, during the 1970's. Later the variety receives a fresh impetus and according to André Dominé once more becomes the "backbone" of the Madiran appellation. The first grape variety to complement Tannat is "Bouchy", the local name for Cabernet Franc. As the original variety from the Carméné family, it is the father of all grape varieties. It has an extremely long ripening cycle and benefits from Madiran's precocious lands. According to Alain Brumont, it has an impact on mouth feel and aromatic complexity. Cabernet Sauvignon is the next important variety to be blended with Tannat. Like Cabernet Franc, it originates from the Pyrenees region and is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc. In Madiran, it is planted due south on the drier lands, less favourable to Tannat which requires a lot of water. Then comes Pinenc, the local name for Fer Servadou, an ancient variety planted by monks along the paths of Santiago. Fer gives lively, very expressive wines with less colour, helping to tone down Tannat's richness.
In Uruguay, blendings are as frequent as in Madiran and more varied. Merlot has long been used, but also Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as in Madiran. But more recently, other varieties have been introduced into blends with Tannat: Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Viognier, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nero d'Avola… with differing results and objectives. 100% Tannat wines are also produced. Daniel Pisano explains that Uruguayans continue to use the French model as a guide. His Italian father planted Tannat in the 1960's when he could have chosen Italian varieties. For him too, Tannat chose the land itself. Chance has nothing to do with it…
Tannat according to the land
For Olivier Bourdet-Pees, "it is a variety that prospers well almost everywhere in Madiran, this is why it is an emblem of the region". On less limiting lands (relatively rich and cool), its aromatic expression is on blackberries, cherries… the wine is very expressive. In more difficult situations (hot, sunny lands with poor water resources) it produces powerful, full-bodied wines. These vast expanses of the appellation are what allow the grapes to achieve optimal maturity, on which Madiran wines have built their reputation.
Alain Brumont suggests that Tannat expression can be classed into 3 types of soils present in Madiran: pea gravel clays (pea gravel silica) giving supple, quaffable wines that do not require barrelling; argilo-calcareous, for sound structure and great aging potential; and smooth pebbles, giving silky wines.
Six wines from Uruguay, including four 100% Tannat; Six wines from Madiran, including three 100% Tannat
What could be expected from a tasting of this type? Not really a hit parade or an accolade of one particular wine, but rather a trip into outer space, 'terroir', know-how… and better understanding of a grape variety that has long been unloved and often misunderstood. This was the organisers' intention.
And while the Madiran wines exhibited all their intensity, the Uruguay wines impressed with their smooth elegance and fruitiness, going against what could have been expected from New World wines. Great wines, wines for pleasure, more complex wines, elegant wines… the entire range of Tannat is expressed. To concur with André Dominé's words, "the aromatic styles have a certain coherence, from the small red fruit aromas in the Madiran to the juicy black fruit from Uruguay". While it appears slightly easier to soften the tannins in Uruguay, in both cases the wines remain concentrated and the quality is always dependant on the requirement for rigour in terms of yield, phenolic maturity and extraction.
The future of Tannat?
Olivier Bourdet-Pees points out that today in France, the 20 most important grape varieties represent 86% of the vineyards. From here an awareness for conserving these varieties is born; varieties "that we need to defend in order to promote the specificity of our production". Speaking about Tannat today implies contributing to the diversity of wines, tastes and emotions. The fact that it is present in Uruguay ensures that this message will be spread throughout the American continent where great international grape varieties are predominant. It also acts as ambassador for the virtues of moderate wine consumption: let's not forget that Tannat, thanks to its great wealth of total polyphenols, is the origin of the French Paradox. Talking about it is good, drinking it is even better!
Source: L'Agence ViniFera